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

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

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

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

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

My Verdict:

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

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Rating: 8/10

Complicated Rating: 37/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 9/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 7/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Saturn’s Child by Jerry Ford (2014)

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

If Wednesday’s Child is full of woe, then Saturn’s Child is full of cable up the butt. Seriously, in this game your character has a cable up his butt for most of the game, as does your girlfriend. When you and your girlfriend have a baby together in space, your kid eventually gets a cable up the butt too. This just reinforces my feeling that all space games are ultimately variations of Xtrek. Every. Single. One. Especially Planets: TEOS.

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

What an epic space adventure! I was totally absorbed from beginning to end, especially during the scenes on Titan and Enceladus. Admittedly the butt stuff was a little weird.

My Verdict:

I loved the adventure, the setting, and the developer’s ambition. I hated the bugs and the excessive focus on procedure. Also, the butt stuff made my butt wince which is never a good thing.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Following his unfortunate death in 2006, ex-president Jerry Ford decided to set politics aside and focus on a new way to reach the masses from beyond the grave: interactive fiction! No, this particular Jerry Ford actually hails from the mean streets of Pleasant Hills, CA, a veritable world away from the gilded cage of Rancho Mirage. He’s written several games that cover everything from crime to demonic seduction to space exploration. That’s why my nickname for him is Detective Jerry Ford, Demonfucker of Mars! Let’s see if that catches on.

Download Link: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/saturns_child.zip

Other Games By This Author: Dark Angel, The Devil in the Details

Before we begin in earnest, I have to tell you something I’ve never shared with anyone else: I’m biased when it comes to space games. That’s because I love space games. I love science fiction in general. I read the books. I watch the movies. I listen to Dimension X. I think about things like space colonization, alien culture, teleportation, and daily life aboard a spaceship on a regular basis. This is an enduring interest for me. Furthermore, I also tend to particularly enjoy interactive fiction set in space, whether it be Infocom classics like Planetfall, graphic adventure game classics like Space Quest, or shooter that occasionally bothers to tell a story classics like Mass Effect. If you want to know how deep the obsession goes, let’s just say I am a genuine fan (present tense) of the BASICA classic Alien and Super Z Trek. Robb reviewed both games fairly on the original incarnation of Reviews From Trotting Krips; I didn’t review either one because I knew I was way too biased to be fair.

So if you want a completely unbiased review of Saturn’s Child you’re not going to be satisfied here because this is definitely a space game and so I’m definitely going to be biased. I’m not so biased that I won’t tell you that the game has both flaws and bugs because it does have both. I’m not even going to write a glowing review because there are as many things I disliked about the game as I liked. It’s just that I have a feeling I enjoyed this game more than most players of interactive fiction will primarily because I love space games. If you don’t share my bias, you could very well think that this is an absolutely terrible game, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. When the average interactive fiction player (who also happens to be a stereotypical teenage girl) plays this, the results are predictably combustive:

“The bugs make this game sooooooooooooooooo annoying! Like there was one which made it so I couldn’t go back to my ship. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”

“Why do I have to press so many buttons and pull so many levers anyway? This is hella boring! Wouldn’t they have self-flying spaceships or voice-activated controls or something like that in the future?”

“What’s the deal with the whole cable in butt thing? Like ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! I bet the guy who did this is a total sicko!”

I bring up the average interactive fiction player’s potential criticisms of this game because they are totally valid. This game does have annoying bugs, it does have an excessive number of buttons, dials, switches, and levers, and it does feature troubling cable-in-butt action. But all that stuff doesn’t absolutely define the game, at least not for me. I prefer to think of the high points. For example, this game features an outstanding sequence where you help your girlfriend give birth to a baby on a spaceship (if your character is male) or actually give birth (if your character is female). This scene and its leadup are pretty intense. During my first playthrough as a male character, I found myself feeling deeply worried I was going to fuck up. After all, I didn’t know nothing about birthing babies. It turned out to be relatively straightforward in terms of what I had to do (which definitely was the easy part), but I was still sweating bullets by the time we were done. The magnitude of what had just happened — the birth of the first baby (human at least) off Earth — awed me. I’m not privy to the development history of this game, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Jerry Ford started out with a more neutral title like Mission to Saturn and then changed the name after writing the birth scene. This is a game that can and will alienate a player with its annoying bugs and insistence on procedure, but the birth scene is interesting enough to draw you back in if you get that far. You could certainly argue that the birth scene is too passive if you’re playing a female character — you don’t even get to push — but it remains powerful because you still get the overwhelming feeling that you’re doing something no human has ever done before. It feels genuinely fresh and exciting, too, because this just isn’t a theme that gets covered in adventure games all that often. I also really enjoyed exploring the Saturnian moons though I was disappointed they felt so similar to one another. To be fair, I should note that you’ll only see one moon in any given playthrough depending on whether you’re the male or the female player character.

The basic premise of Saturn’s Child is that you are in the space program and are on a mission to Saturn together with an opposite sex partner. Your task is to retrieve two probes lost on Titan and Enceladus, two of Saturn’s numerous moons. You can choose to be either the male or the female astronaut. This choice affects your path through the game ever so slightly; most notably, it changes the perspective of the birth scene and determines which moon of Saturn you’ll personally land on. Whether male or female your space duties will be extremely similar, and I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary to play both paths. Technically, you can also choose to have no sexual organs or be a hermaphrodite, but this just leads to an early game ending. According to this game, NASA doesn’t accept hermaphrodites into the space program. Even if true, pointing this out in a text adventure seems a little unnecessarily mean. Suffice it to say that hermaphrodites will always have a place in my space program, if you know what I mean. If you DO know what I mean, you definitely have the edge on me because I have absolutely no idea.

The game starts out with you and your partner in training. The first scene is a little similar to the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that you find yourself in a dark room with nearly no sensory information to go on. If anything does smell a bit this time around, it’s likely to be the cable you find securely inserted in your ass. You also don’t have any memories. Starting the game out in this manner made me think I wasn’t really an astronaut but rather a kidnap victim. In fact, the first character you meet actually makes an alien anal probe joke. Not exactly the best way to earn my confidence. I had a bit of a hard time buying that my loss of memory was somehow connected to my training as well. Later on, I started to suspect the government might be involved in the pregnancy too, especially when a scientist referred to my child as an extraterrestrial. For whatever reason, the game seems to go out of its way to downplay this possibility — you get your memories back, your baby appears completely human, and a short timeline for the impregnation (which suspiciously no one really seems to remember in any great detail) is provided. Even an explanation for the anal cables is given: the little buggers dispense medicine and report back important health information! In other words, they’re basically a more advanced smartwatch for your butt…who wouldn’t want one? So, no, I can’t exactly prove a secret government research project and alien sperm were actually involved in the birth of my child, but I was totally expecting an ending where my kid sprouted feelers and exhibited telekinetic powers. I’m afraid you’ll have to play the game for yourself to find out if that’s what really happens.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this game is that Jerry Ford’s ideas are generally good and his ambition is admirable. He’s genuinely succeeded in creating a virtual world that is distinct and memorable though not detailed. He captures some of the majesty and mystery of space and some of the dangers as well as the allure of space travel. The big ship, the lander, and the rover all feel like real environments — it’s easy to play this game and imagine yourself actually in space and actually manipulating these hulking machines. The problem is Ford seems so wrapped up in his ideas and his world that it feels like he sometimes forgets people will be playing his game for fun. I’ll take that back if it turns out NASA is actually using this game to prepare recruits for space travel. If that never happens, it’s very hard to justify what Ford puts his players through at times. For one thing, his favorite type of puzzle seems to be the puzzle of obscurity. One example is the treadmill. It takes multiple steps to get it working and to dismount it, but the most trouble users are likely to have with it is finding how to turn it on. It turns out the machine has an emergency power cutoff lever, but you have to stumble about for a while to find it. Looking at the treadmill won’t tell you anything about any cutoff switch. It’s much the same story with the difficult to find book or the first aid kit that doesn’t want to be used even when your partner is bleeding out. To be frank, it’s unclear if these “puzzles” are really intended to be puzzles or if the author just didn’t want to take the time to flesh his game out. Another point of annoyance is Ford’s love of procedure. Space travel naturally involves a lot of cool machines and electronics, and this game has a number of instances where you need to manipulate buttons, levers, and switches in a specific way to proceed. I can appreciate this to a degree because it does make the game seem more realistic, but it becomes downright ridiculous when you have to spend five minutes using a space microwave that’s exactly the same as its counterpart on Earth. Some parts of this game are downright tedious and dull. I think there’s a place for procedure when you’re doing something important and need to learn a skill you’ll use again in the game. For instance, I wouldn’t complain if I had to learn how to manually navigate a starship in a space game. I got absolutely nothing out of opening and closing the microwave, adding water to various food packets, putting the packets in the microwave, setting the power level, setting the cook time, and turning the power on multiple times, though. That’s just unnecessary tedium.

I’m afraid the bugs are going to get their own paragraph. Sadly, there are a lot of them. Some are easy to ignore, like the unmatched quote error early on. Some principally serve as an annoyance, like the way the scientist keeps telling you to dismount the treadmill even when you’re no longer in the same room if you fail to do the dismounting in time. I don’t think you actually CAN do the dismounting in time if you’re a male character, but it works if you’re a female. Maybe the game’s actually trying to make some sort of social commentary about the male tendency to monopolize exercise equipment. Women may take too long in the bathroom, but guys…uh…take too long on the treadmill? The little bastards just can’t get enough of walking without going anywhere, and Saturn’s Child is here to call them out on it. In any case, there’s a certain humor in having the scientist show up somewhere completely inappropriate, such as on Titan, but you’re likely to see that message about dismounting the treadmill a hundred times or more before you’re through with the game. That brings us to the last and worst category of bugs: the game enders. There are at least two bugs which will leave you stuck and unable to finish, and I ran into both of them. As a male character, you can get stuck on Titan through no fault of your own. I still don’t know what triggered the bug, but I somehow ended up in a position where the game said I had reentered my lander even though I was really still on Titan. My space helmet was removed automatically when I tried to reenter the ship so I found myself aimlessly wandering the surface of Titan, breathing in the atmosphere without a helmet and none the worse for wear. Weird all around. Jerry Ford’s strong belief in gender equality lead to him inserting a similar bug for the female character. This time the bug occurs during a radiation leak that occurs prior to your departure for Enceladus. If you don’t follow the proper sequence of actions, you can end up unable to advance the game no matter what you do. It turns out software bugs are ultimately more deadly than radiation. I think NASA knows exactly what I’m talking about, unfortunately.

In short, Saturn’s Child is a game for a particular type of person: someone who really, really loves space and doesn’t mind bugs, even game-ending bugs. Even though there were aspects of the game that I genuinely enjoyed, it turns out even I don’t love space quite THAT much. There’s just a few too many problems here to forgive and overlook or to expect others to forgive and overlook. The pity is that Saturn’s Child genuinely had the potential to be great…it just didn’t quite manage to realize that potential. In its present form, I suspect those who have some sort of weird cable-butt fetish will end up enjoying the game more than anyone else. If that’s you, this is definitely the game. If that’s not you, well, that’s why we have other reviews.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 22/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 3/10 (Sadly, Jerry Ford seems to struggle to look at his own games from a player’s point of view.)

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10 (The parser can be quite picky at times and some of the TADS rewrites for unrecognized inputs are downright bizarre.)