IFcomp 2017: First Impressions

I haven’t done online reviews for IFcomp since 2013, but this year I will give it a try.

Let me start with first impressions of the 2017 IFcomp entries based on nothing beyond the list provided on the contest website. For each entry, this list provides a cover image, blurb, content warnings, and a download link. For each, I tried to glean what I could from this sparse information. Based entirely on my own speculation and without having seen anything of the games themselves, I also made a [perhaps wildly inaccurate] prediction for each entry. I make no claim that these predictions will have anything to do with the actual games, but by sheer numbers, I hope I’m on the mark with a few of them.

I mostly did this for my own amusement, and should point out that when I started I didn’t really appreciate how very many entries IFcomp received this year. This is probably TLDR; for most folks, so feel free to skip around to any entries that interest you. The order of listing is based on my personal shuffle, and will be the order that I follow for subsequent reviews, except where noted.

The Cube in the Cavern – The first game on my personal list is by Andrew Schultz, and if this game follows his usual style, it will emphasize word play. From the description of a cubic world, I am guessing we’ll see some coordinate puzzles as well. At this point, there is no cover art, but maybe that suits a piece that will focus on the written word. Prediction: Pablo Picasso falls into a cubist painting and is tortured by Salvador Dali.

The Fifth Sunday – Brooding grey cover art. Not sure if the title has some sort of religious meaning? There is no description beyond “This cover image ramains property of its original owner.” I have two issues with that: first, the spelling of “remains” does not bode well for attention to detail. On the other hand, I’ve certainly screwed up posting blurbs to the IFcomp site, and this can be fixed. Also, it’s okay if the author isn’t a great speller or typer, as long as their proofer did a good job on the game itself. My other quibble: if the art is from some other source, that source should be cited; maybe not strictly a requirement, but good practice. Prediction: Heathcliff visits an inn on the edge of the moors, where he discovers the dismembered body of Lord Byron.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful – Both the title and description are in e.e. cumminigs style lower case, which I assume is intentional. Also, so happy to see someone manhandle the preposition away from the end of the phrase. Prediction: The world seen through the eyes of a kitten.

Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log – A sci-fi adventure from the perspective of an entertainment techie. It’s a shame that there is no graphic for this one — it could be fun. Prediction: Have mixing board, can travel. A young man discovers that the key to saving the Earth from an alien invasion involves gaffer’s tape and feeding warp plasma through the PA system.

Transient Skies – A space adventure, my cup of tea. The graphic is a star field and superimposed title, which doesn’t give me much information about where this will go, but also avoids any sort of spoiler. The word “transient” in the title: I wonder if it is in relation to the constant change of the universe or perhaps more literally, it’s about a space hobo. The writing doesn’t sound very hobo-like. Prediction: A story involving solitary travel on a galactic scale and at relativistic speeds, necessarily involving time dilation. The protagonist watches the universe evolve like a time-lapse film, while civilizations constantly perish and are reborn.

Grue. – This sounds like an homage to classic IF: a Z-code game with starvation counter. I expect it to be punishing (please, no mazes!) and very likely to have many, many ways to die. The graphic is pitch dark, as it should be, with eyes — are they the grue’s eyes? It is likely. Prediction: This could be a lot of fun if it spins the perspective around to the grue’s POV and develops the grue itself, usually just a bit of dungeon mechanics, to a fully realized character with motivation and purpose.

Behind the Door – The graphic presumably depicts one of the postcards that your character has been receiving from a mysterious source. The graphic is drawn by hand and includes a few elements that are not (yet) connected: a twig, a queen chess piece, a paw print, some crystal orbs, a plan, some candles, a butterfly, and the titular door. Prediction: We have the sender’s address, so I am guessing that the door in question is the door to the sender’s house. I think I’m on solid ground that far, but here goes my wild extrapolation: The letters are postcards sent from an address, which is the physical extension of another, magical reality into our universe. The main character has come to the attention of the mysterious letter writer (or perhaps by birth, has always been surveilled). Upon entering the house, the main character will undergo a series of puzzle-based tests to determine if they have what it takes to defeat a monster of some sort that threatens both neighboring universes.

The Traveller – IFcomp’s random listing order places this one shortly after Transient Skies, which has a similar graphic. I have to wonder if the traveller in this story might cross paths with the one in the Transient Skies story. That would be neat. Reading through the blurb, this is set in a period after Earth’s fall, so let’s say towards the end of the Trump presidency. On one hand, you’re the savior of humanity, but on the other hand it says that you were on a routine scouting mission. That sounds kind of small beans for a savior of humanity. I mean, wouldn’t you have minions to do that scouting stuff, while you are off savioring? Be that as it may, the game seems to consist of exploring five alien worlds and interacting with their cultures. The blurb promises decision making on the part of the player and multiple outcomes. I have to say that this blurb is very effective — it sets the scene, conveys player’s role, and promises freedom of choice with meaningful outcomes; hopefully it delivers on the latter. This looks like a magnum opus project, with predicted play duration over two hours, which makes me wonder why it ended up in IFcomp rather than Spring Thing, but that’s certainly the author’s prerogative. Prediction: What are you scouting for? A MacGuffin to save humanity or more prosaically, resources to rebuild human civilization? I’ll go with the latter, and say that the main dilemmas revolve around what the main character will have to do to convince other civilizations to part with or at least share their resources and technology. Since the blurb dangles the background about being a mother separated from her daughter, I would guess that will be the “B” story. That could be handled by occasional brooding about the separation, but I’d like to hope that it will rather be serviced through periodic communications between the mother and daughter, with a reunion (or not) at the end of the story, depending on how the story flows based on a series decision points that occur during each planetary encounter.

A common enemy – Again, the random listing effect: as in the traveller, you are the only one who can save the planet, in this case by averting a nuclear war. The graphic consists of a mushroom cloud and what I take to be the silhouette of a “grey” alien with a nuclear trefoil symbol superimposed. The blurb mentions a “spacial” project, which is an unconventional spelling, although the meaning is clear: having to do with space. This may have been a conscious choice, an oversight, or it may reflect that the author is not a native English speaker, which I also tend to think because of the sentence structure in the blurb. This isn’t a problem, and in fact, I have great respect for anyone willing to take a crack at writing a story in something other than their mother tongue. If that’s the case, I’d hope that a native speaker has proofed the story itself, however, since absent that some turns of phrase can come off as unintentionally awkward. On the other hand, I may be entirely off base about this assumption; if so, never mind. Prediction: The job seems easy enough: figure out a way to save humanity. There are two ways this could go. On one hand, we could work on the domestic scene and disable nuclear devices on Earth. That should prevent a nuclear Armageddon, right? But there are a lot of devices, and this seems like a bit of drudgery. However, since there are aliens involved, and they’re behind the whole conspiracy, why not go right to the source and deal with them? I’m imagining some sort of Steve Jacksonesque universe, where we need to get to Warehouse 23 at site 51, defeat the servants of Cthulhu guarding the entrance of the facility financed by the Gnomes of Zurich, and pull the plug on the master computer deep in the underground Alpha Base, which has been infiltrated by an alien computer virus sent by the UFOs.

The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation – My eyes go at once to the graphic, which despite being entirely text, has immediate visual impact: the magenta and cyan color and font style would be familiar to anyone who has spent too many hours staring at a CGA monitor from the early days of the IBM-PC. This aligns perfectly with the period it is set in: 1987. From the blurb, the main character is a child and the story will focus on that characters relationship with his or her father. Perhaps the story is told as a memory of a current day adult; assuming the main character is around seven to ten years old in the story, that would make them about 37 to 40 now, which would account for the nostalgic graphic. The content warning suggests that this story will have a serious tone, rather than take the more lighthearted approach of “Screw You, Bear Dad” to paternal-child relations. Prediction: This will not be a happy story. Sea-Monkeys are inherently disappointing: you think you are getting some playful, intelligent aquatic creatures, but you actually get a packet of desiccated brine shrimp. Parenthetically, I have nothing against brine shrimp, and think they have some potential for amusement, but they don’t do many tricks and certainly do not wear crowns. I am sure the unhappiness goes further given the tone of the blurb: maybe the tank is hit by a baseball and spills, but certainly something else will go wrong, and provoke the father’s unwarranted wrath. I’ll have to be in a good mood to play this one.

Absence of Law – Ah, mathbrush. That’s a familiar name, I know I’ve played something by mathbrush before …Before I read the blurb, let me do a quick google. Yes, of course, last year’s “Color The Truth”. Yes, I really enjoyed that game. Back to this year’s entry, though: The blurb starts off by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the IFcomp judge directly, that’s kind of refreshing. There isn’t too much about the game except some teasing glimpses of cloning, forgotten languages, and robots; clearly a sci-fi theme. The graphic is relatively sparse: the title and a grey triangle. The “O” in “Of” is stylized like an aperture, maybe of a camera or perhaps of a dilating door. As for the triangle, perhaps it is a pyramid? That could go with the ancient languages part. Prediction: Not much to extrapolate from, but that’s all for the better, where I’m concerned. This is a story about an ancient pyramid, constructed by the alien overlords of our universe, who set it up to maintain the laws of physics that apply here. Over time, it has run down, threatening the continuity of reality. The robotic staff of the pyramid, who have otherwise had nothing to do through the ages but play cards, now have to clone one of the aliens to come and restore the ancient machinery and put reality back on an even kilter.

The Dream Self – Something is going on in your dreams, and it will have an impact on your workaday life. I’m not a big fan of stories that feature dreams — I think that Star Trek TNG episode with floating Deanna Troi ruined me for life. I am curious to see this work from a technical perspective, though. I’m not familiar with Unity/Ink as a platform. I see there is a Windows and Mac build, so I am guessing this is an executable. I’ll need to run this one in a VM, which is not a major burden, but it does mean one more step than something that will run in a common interpreter or on a web-based platform. Prediction: Something — or someone — is contacting you in your dreams. The story starts with a day-in-the-life-of simulation where you go to work and come home. That evening: the first of the dream cut scenes, which are mostly expositional rather than interactive. You wake, and things have subtly changed. You notice new things. Stuff is out of place. You do things you would not have ordinarily done. Wash, rinse, repeat. After a few days — you begin to worry about how radically you and your world have changed. Are you losing a grip on reality? Finally, you confront your dream self, and resolve a longstanding, repressed memory. Voilà.

Insignificant Little Vermin – The graphic agrees with the subtitle, this will be set in a sword and sorcery world. You have escaped from an orc and goblin underground kingdom and are wandering through the caves, hopefully on the way out. The blurb promises AI actors, which could on one hand mean that this is more of a combat simulator, with various guards roaming the halls in an intelligent manner, or more enticingly, that the game is populated by more fleshed out agents that can interact across a broader spectrum of behaviors. My money is on the combat simulation, though. Prediction: From the title, I am hoping that this has some comedic flavor, along the lines of “Great Orc Gods”, and that the orc and goblin captors are about as clever as you would think orc and goblin captors would be. It isn’t clear to me whether I am a fellow goblinoid, perhaps from a neighboring tribe, or if I am a human adventurer who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although escaping the cavern would be a reward in itself, I would also expect that there is some booty to plunder during my dungeon crawl, and perhaps a mechanics-based puzzle or two (mechanics-based since orcs are not known for their wittiness in designing puzzles based on wordplay or mathematics).

Antiquest – The graphic consists of a stylized face (Picasso and Matisse meet Beavis) and another creature that looks like a slug. From the title, I wondered if the slug is the antiquest, because in the graphic its contours roughly complement those of the face, and I thought that like an antibody, it might bind to the face, presumably, the questor. Or not. As in Absence of Law, the blurb begins by addressing the judge, promising a game with multiple outcomes, graphics, and sound. Apparently, the goal is to work contrary to logic and arrive at as many of the possible endings a possible, which presumably means that the game is meant to be replayed or cycles in some way. Prediction: The player is plunged into some sort of slug-infested bizzaro world with its own counterintuitive rules. Through experimentation, the player will learn the inverse logic underlying this world and finally escape back to normal reality.

A Beauty Cold and Austere – Hopefully, not a love letter to Angela Merkel. The graphics look like procedurally generated spirals, and since the blurb mentions a course in conceptual mathematics, I have to guess that this story will lean heavily on mathematics, either for story or puzzles. Prediction: The main character will certainly consume the memory pill that is mentioned in the blurb, and this will be the central plot device. But what does a memory pill do? Does it enhance recall of subsequent sensory inputs? Does it trigger reliving of past memories? Does it give the user someone else’s encapsulated memories? Since I have no clue, I’ll go with that last one — the pill contains the distilled knowledge of some mathematical wizard, but also conveys their personality quirks and emotional baggage. Success consists of dealing with the unwanted collateral effects of the pill and making it to the exam on time.

Eat Me – Chandler Groover is a familiar name and I appreciate his writing style. The graphic is a person’s face, composed of food items, and that goes right along with the sparse description: eat or be eaten. Apparently, the winning scenario for this adventure is not ending up as someone else’s dinner. There is only the briefest mention of story elements: the setting is a castle, and it includes dairy, carnage, puzzles, and nuts. Well, that gives me enough to generate a prediction, but the error bars may be sizeable. Prediction: Cows have been successful in their plot to cause global warming through greenhouse gas-emitting flatulence. Earth now resembles Venus, except for a few environmental domes controlled by a bovinocracy. Our cow overlords live in temperature-controlled castles with wall-to-wall luxuriant grass tended by enslaved humans. A traveller from our world is shocked to find out that cows are no longer on the menu, but are running the world, and they have a dim view of carnivores. Luckily for our adventurer, their Achilles heel is their penchant for designing clever but ultimately self-defeating puzzles.

Nightbound – The graphic is black, but for the word “Nightbound” itself, in which the “i” is rendered as a sword. This may be a play on the homonyms knight (the sword) and night (the black background). Maybe batman in armor? Let’s read the blurb: Seems pretty straightforward: it describes itself as an RPG. Prediction: The blurb mentions some past from which the character is running, so I’ll say that this character drank some tainted wine, massacred the village, and is now on a quest to recover his honor as a knight; naturally, this is best accomplished by slaughtering evil creatures with a sword. When the carnage counter is high enough, the King will update the royal database to set the honor bit.

Fake News – Well, there’s a title from the headlines — if you believe the headlines. According the blurb, all the main character wants is some down time, but this seems unlikely given the prediction of a seer about a looming adventure involving the fate of the main character’s great-grandparents. Prediction: Perhaps the news headlines are fake if time travel is possible. Messing around with great-grandparents always puts one’s own existence in peril. Altering the timeline would surely alter the headlines. Will there be some other more overt political commentary? Maybe, or maybe it’s just the title.

Alice Aforethought – The graphic is clockwork, and according to the blurb, the central issue is that time has stopped (well, apparently not for the main character and anyone else who acts in the story). Given allusion to Alice, madness, and mushrooms, this story presumably involves the Wonderland, possibly for setting and characters. Alliteration may also play a role, as the title is all “A”s and the Content warning is all “M”s. My impression is that this will be a fantastic romp, so reality safeties may be entirely disabled for this adventure. The blurb mentions other characters and that they are mad, so central puzzle may involve figuring out each character’s idiosyncratic needs through conversation. Prediction: Oh what the hell, let’s go off the rails. This is an Alice In Wonderland crossover with Doctor Who, who has been described as a mad man in a box. The Mad Hatter has thrown in with The Master, and the Doctor and Lewis Carroll must join forces to restore the integrity of time-space.

Off The Rails – I wrote “off the rails” in the above paragraph before I scrolled down to this title; what are the odds? Anyhow, the graphic suggests the cover of a foodie magazine with some catchy stories inside. There is a picture of a cake on the cover, so I would guess that this story involves baking said cake. From the blurb, my guess is that the focus in not so much on cooking as on interpersonal relations. Somehow, the act of baking or the product will have an effect on family dynamics. The story is told from the perspective of a child in a splintered family, so perhaps the cake is somehow a catalyst to either restore estranged parents as a couple or to crystallize their intention to separate. Prediction: The title implies that the story may rapidly spiral out of control. So, I would say that the story starts off with the main character flipping through a magazine, looking for a cake to bake for her mother’s birthday. Her parents are separated over some suspected marital infidelity on her father’s part, but her father has agreed to come over for some cake as a conciliatory gesture. Everything is on an even keel until the cake explodes in the oven (salt peter mistaken for flour) and the house burns to the ground, taking an entire apartment building with it. The family moves to a temporary shelter on the outskirts of town, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise as the entire downtown area is ravaged by a marauding flame-spewing dinosaur. Through adversity, the family rediscovers unity. The story ends with them eating cupcakes topped with marzipan lizards.

The Owl Consults – A three-author team brings us this story about a consulting crime lord, sort of the flip side to Sherlock Holmes’ consulting detective. The graphic includes a feather and a page of a textbook that looks mathematical. Prediction: Shades of “Pinky and the Brain” — your success is based on your intelligence and your ambition to rule the world. So, I guess we know what we’re doing tonight. The game starts in your library, where you are dressed in your smoking jacket, smoking your pipe and sipping port. Your butler shows in a trio of middle-management crime bosses, who don’t seem to be able to pull off their heists in a satisfactory manner without your keen insight. After accepting a sizeable fee, you agree to advise them, making a number of [menu-based] decisions for them. Subsequently, they intrude on your quiet reflection a number of times, updating you about the course of their crime wave and seeking refinements of the plan as they encounter adversities. In the end, you arrange for their capture and also collect the reward, amused by your own duplicity.

Just Get the Treasure v0.9.1 – The graphic is a face looking left. Or is it a chalice? It’s both: A falice! I’m not sure what is going on with the red dots that seem to be coming out of the eyes of the face, though. The title suggests a not quite ready for release version of software, which may be the author’s way of saying that this game might not be entirely polished. It could also mean that the main character’s plan is also not quite well thought out. From the blurb, it sounds like the main character may need to refine his plans a few times to get the chalice, as there are many ways to die, and this is probably part of figuring out how to win. I am also intrigued by the quotation marks around “the evil” wizard Malvox. I mean, you’d think that with a name like Malvox (evil voice?) he would be evil, but maybe he’s ironically not evil? Maybe stealing the chalice won’t really liberate your people? Prediction: If the whole thing revolves around your interaction with the goblin, this could be a very deep but narrow game, where you have rich interation with the one PC, think Galatea, but with a goblin. You could just grab Malvox’s obsidian dagger and plunge it repeatedly into the hapless goblin’s chest, covering yourself with ichor and finally putting the chalice in your hands, only to realize that you have become “evil” yourself and have taken the place of Malvox. Next time you play, maybe you could trick the goblin into giving your the chalice, bribe him, confuse him? Maybe getting the chalice isn’t the be all and end all. Maybe you need to give it to the goblin, to set him free (the gift of a sock isn’t enough these days), or perhaps destroying the chalice is the only way to break the cycle of oppression. I can see how this could have so many endings.

N O I R – The letters are spaced out — is it an acronym? Does it denote a film noir ambiance, à la last year’s Detective Land? That could work in a cyberpunk game, just as it did in Blade Runner. Or is NOIR evocative of the “black ice” firewalls recounted in early cyberpunk stories or maybe of black hat hackers. Maybe all of the above. In the blurb, you are a bounty hunter pursuing “Omphalos”. Prediction: Sounds like you are a morally ambiguous gumshoe, so your quarry may or may not actually be a bad person. From the name, I’d like to think that Omphalos is a biomodified hacker who jacks in by plugging an ethernet cable directly into his belly button. To find him, you need to interact with other hackers by breaking into their systems and extracting useful bits of information. Eventually (not too much later, given half hour predicted play time), you catch up to Omphalos and must make the decision to turn him in for a reward or to turn your eye away, letting him continue to siphon off rounding errors from Big Corporate transactions in favor of the Home for Orphaned Hackers.

1958: Dancing With Fear – My first impression was of the graphic: very classy, and in keeping with a period piece set in the late 50s. The conceit is that the game itself is a movie from 1958. The graphic refers to the game as the script for this movie, and the blurb is a short synopsis of the movie that refers to the author of the game as the movie’s director. Consequently, the blurb outlines the plot of the movie, and hence of the game, at least in broad strokes, mentioning the leading lady and the love triangle involving a smuggle and a policeman and a complicated cold-war setting on a Caribbean island. God, this blurb makes me want to play this game right now. The graphic and blurb are a great example of how to put the IFcomp listing real estate to best use. I give this story an extra point in my ten-point grading system just for the quality of the blurb. Prediction: The time and place suggest an analog of pre-revolution Cuba, so the vibe will be Havana in the hey days of the casinos. The antagonism between the two love interests, a corrupt policeman and smuggler is not hard to imagine, perhaps with the spy holding all the cards, with incriminating evidence against both. Salomé has a clear choice to side with the policeman or the smuggler, or perhaps to pursue the intelligence agent first. In principle, the spy may also be involved in Cold-War power politics, pushing the island towards either revolution or stability, which could change the balance between the policeman (on the current state’s payroll) or the smuggler (who might be just as happy working the with revolutionaries). Whichever way the player goes, someone is going to get hurt, whether on a personal level or, in a geopolitical sense, globally.

Oh my God. I’m only like a third of the way through this year’s list. What a bumper crop!

Continuing…

Harbinger – Nothing says doom like a backlit crow on a tree branch, and the title is similarly foreboding. According to the blurb, you saw something kill the wizard in the tower, and this game is about what action you then take. This all sounds very generic, and I wonder if it follows the IF trope where the PC is an understudy to the wizard and is suddenly thrust into a position of needing to take on the mantle of wizard without full preparation, typically using devices and learning spells from the master’s spell book. Prediction: Let’s go with that general background, and say that further, you know that the wizard (who might even have a name), was mucking about with Things People Were Not Meant to Know and had the misfortune to conjure up something evil with capital E. Maybe he even tried to stuff it back in the cauldron, but it was too powerful. Now, the creature wanders around in the castle, waiting to encounter you. To add some gravity to the situation, as bad as the conjured thing (which also probably has a name) is, it is merely the harbinger of a bigger, badder thing which definitely has a scary name. To open the interdimensional gateway, cast the spell, activate the portal, etc., the monster in the castle has to follow a plan that will take some time, giving you the opportunity to intercede, but also requiring that you act quickly and decisively. Eventually, by digging through the master’s spell books and perhaps receiving a few clues from the ranting monster itself, you figure out a way to reverse to polarity of the cauldron and drive the thing back to the abyss from which it oozed.

Étude Circulár – Warning bells here. The author is Adam Black but the twitter handle is fakeAdamBlack, which makes me think this is dummy account or is spoofing someone else. Étude is the French, circulár isn’t. Not sure what that is supposed to imply. The graphic is just a grey circle. There is no blurb. This screams low effort troll entry and I’m bumping it to the bottom of my play list. If it is not a troll entry, I’m still taking a point off my final evaluation for poor blurb. In the same way that the moon is a harsh mistress, so am I, except I’m not a celestial body, and I’m not a mistress.

The Adventure of Esmeralda and Ruby on the Magical Island – This blurb isn’t much better. The graphic is just the title on a white background. Unless there is a monstrous blizzard on that island, this graphic doesn’t tell me much. Likewise, the description: two brothers looking for a missing friend. Well, at least that is an actionable premise. Prediction: I’m twisting the speculation control to 11, but here goes: this is a fan fiction crossover between Supernatural and Bewitched. Loki has sent Sam and Dean to the universe in which they are actors on a TV show, but in the year 1966. There, they meet Agnes Moorehead, who played Samatha Steven’s mother, Esmeralda on the show. By bringing Agnes back to their own reality, she gains the powers of an actual witch. Since the year is still 1966, she is able to use her powers to capture the demon Ruby and send her back to the TV universe, where she becomes a mere mortal actress. This enables Jared Padalecki to marry her, which accords with his real life marriage to Genevieve Cortese, who played Ruby on the show. The circle is complete. Quid erat demonstratum.

The Wizard Sniffer – Kind of a mix between Lost Pig and TMBG’s super taster. You’re supposed to be a pig that can sniff out evil shape-shifting wizards. I have to wonder how they know that you’re not an ESSW in pig form, but I guess you have to start somewhere. The graphic is awfully cute and the blurb describes this as a comedy of errors, so this is a welcome relief to some of the heavy themes in other works. It also mentions use of a limited parser. This seems to be a trend. Last year there were a number of hybrid stories, e.g., “Detective Land”, with constrained combinations of verb and noun on top of a generalized parser engine. I suppose “Take” took (so to speak) it to the extreme with a single (well, not quite, but mostly) verb. The main advantage of this approach is to allow a deeper dive on those keywords that are implemented and avoidance of not very helpful canned responses to the great majority of inputs that players might dream up given a larger combinatorial vocabulary. As in Lost Pig, it seems reasonable that a pig might have a somewhat limited vocabulary and range of actions, so parser limitations seem acceptable. Prediction: Ser Leonhart is clearly an entitled narcissistic jerk (or perhaps I am projecting), and his poor squire is the one who is level headed and gets things done. No doubt, he realized that wizard sniffing isn’t really a thing, but had to go along with it to keep his job. In this story, through a series of unlikely events, you end up at the lair of an ancient green dragon, who is entirely likeable and even willing to give away the bits of his treasure that are pointy and uncomfortable to lie down on. Ser Leonhard immediately assumes, though, that this is the shape shifting wizard and goes into full on smite mode. While the ancient dragon blithely ignores Ser Leonhart’s ineffective stabbing, our hero pig gobbles up the shape-shifting wizard, who had made the regrettable choice of taking on the form of the red delicious apple clearly visible in the cover art.

A Castle of Thread – The title puts me in mind of last year’s Ariadne, but knowing this author’s body of work, my guess is that this story hews closer to the Mountains of Madness. The graphic looks like a new script somewhere between Ahmaric and Armenian, but I don’t recognize it. The blurb describes an ancient language, Ixteesh, and I have to guess that this is what is represented. In the blurb, a sudden need has arisen for someone versed in Ixteesh, and wouldn’t you know it, your family just happen to be the local experts. You know, the way some families just intently study dead languages? Like that. Prediction: You’ve been called to the big city to help out, but the blurb is a little light on details about the job. Perhaps rightly so, because without a doubt some kind of hellish horror is surely waiting upon the precipice to destroy our world; your linguistic skills are all that stand between us and oblivion, so I hope you brought your dictionary. I’m up for some old school horror, and I’m sure Marshal will deliver. With a warning like “fantasy, violence”, what could go wrong?

Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous – There’s a lot going on in the cover art and I had to blow up the picture to see all the fonts. The main character, the adorable (in a Ren and Stimpy sort of way, so not very) guttersnipe, aka patient 452, and her rat are depicted in both a picture and a shadow. In the shadow, her brain is highlighted maybe suggesting that there is an organic basis for her behavior. According to the description, this is set in the Great Depression, 1929, so there were plenty of guttersnipes milling about, although I have to wonder how many of them were doing their milling in Garbagetown DC and Montgomery County (presumably, Georgetown in Washington, DC and neighboring Montgomery County in southern Maryland). It being a civilized time, of course guttersnipes were shut away in rat-infested asylums. How else would they improve their lot in life? The story promises that she will be subjected to all manner of 1920s patent medicines to help reform her. Between the cover art and blurb, this one looks promising. Prediction: As pleasant as the asylum is in this description, I would have to think that she would either want to escape or at least plan to turn the tables on those running the asylum. I assume there are some sadistic adult administrators that will end up dipped in brine and strapped to the electroshock tables.

Into the Dark – The good news – this doesn’t look like a Kelvin-timeline Star Trek story. The less good news: the word “dark” appears five times in the listing for this story. Ironically, the graphic is of a burning torch, kind of the antidote for dark. The blurb informs us that this is set in a fantasy world where our veteran monster hunter, well, presumably hunts monsters. The content warning provides some insight about possible directions the story will go: murder, suicide, betrayal. Fun times. Prediction: Hunting the only monster to have evaded you, you discover that it is in fact, your father and that you are descended from monsters. You loyal sidekick offers to either kill you or let you take your own shameful life. Or you could kill your loyal sidekick. Or, you could just take dad and your sidekick out for drinks, and we could all talk about this reasonably. There’s no reason to continue to hang out near the snow-covered castle at the edge of the dark forest, right? Why not take a cruise to warmer climes and settle down on a beach, open a bar, and write a novel about it all.

The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now – The graphic on the cover art depicts a dragon that resembles a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lawn ornament. In the blurb, it appears that dragons are part of your society and that they read fortunes. Apparently, you have an appointment out in the middle of the woods dark at night to have your fortune read, but are having qualms about being eaten by the fortuneteller. It isn’t clear why you need to have your fortune read or why you couldn’t have scheduled a more convenient appointment time and place. Is this the only dragon fortuneteller that your insurance covers? Do you need them to sign off on some paperwork for your job? Prediction: The character’s main concern is about being eaten. Given the 15 minutes estimated play time, I would say that is just enough time to pack a picnic basket, put on a hooded cape, kiss grandma goodbye and head out to the dragon lair. But what happens in the dragon lair, as they say, stays in the dragon lair. Except perhaps the bones.

The Wand – The graphic is a circle composed of ten links of a chain surrounding the title, “the wand”. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the title were “The Somewhat Bulky and Uncomfortable Metal Bracelet”? The terse blurb clarifies this. You are exploring a wizard’s castle with the help of a wand, using it for such routine tasks as levitating objects and slicing baltavakia. What is baltavakia? A kind of cheese? Wouldn’t a cheese knife be more effective? Who wants to clean cheese off a wand? Anyhow, the description indicates this will be a puzzle-oriented game. Prediction: Once again, you, the wizards apprentice are in the master’s castle, this time as some sort of hazing to see if you are worthy to graduate and get your pointy hat. You have been issued a fully recharged class-B wand and a user manual, so go to it. The quirky wizard has sprinkled exotic magical traps throughout the castle. If you can defeat them all, you can make it to his famed cheese cellar and help yourself to a wedge of two-year aged baltavakia.

Moon Base – Uh oh. Something has gone wrong on the moon base. We’ve lost visual — there is no graphic for this game. Also, bandwidth appears to be limited: the blurb would fit in a tweet: “this is a sci/fi horror game. Good enough. I hope you enjoy/are scared by it!!!” Well, that would be exactly my reaction to those genres, respectively, although I am not sure that combining them Reeses Pieces style makes them better. Perhaps the scariest part is that this has to be run in Firefox. What unspeakable horror lives in this game that it will corrupt and taint the likes of Chrome, Edge, and Opera? Dare I approach this with anything other than lynx, the text browser? Prediction: You shouldn’t have kept digging in the regolith once your shovel hit the buried wooden box of unspeakable antiquity, nor should you have arrogantly cut away the bright yellow tape along its edges inscribed with “Voids warranty; releases monster”. Now your life hangs by a thread of code that runs only in Firefox. Can some strange quirk of javascript save you and the moonbase?

The Murder in the Fog – My initial reaction was that the title would have had more punch were it just “Murder in the Fog”. I guess the extra definite article makes it more specific, but for me it diminishes the dramatic flavor. The graphic is a black and white picture of a foggy graveyard, with two prominent cross-shaped graves. The blurb provides no information about what the game is about, and just mentions that the cover images is property of its original owner, but does not specify who that owner is or what sort of intellectual property governs its reuse. This is the same issue I ran into for The Fifth Sunday, so I have to wonder if that wording is lifted from the rules or is a default for the online game submission system. Regardless, the absence of information in the blurb hurts this submission. Prediction: They’re not crosses, they are plus signs. This is where they bury math teachers who die under mysterious circumstances. Only you can prevent additional murders.

Harmonia – The author is Liza Daly, so my assumptions start high in terms of writing style and content. The graphic looks like an old print of an inn or country manor house, with the word “Harmonia” written down the right margin in what looks like fountain pen. A ragged, triangular area at the bottom center of the picture is white (the background color is white, so I think that this bit of the picture is actually gone). The blurb looks like a card catalog entry for a book, presumably with the title “Harmonia”, authored by an A. Fuller, who was born in 1966 and probably hadn’t died when the entry was prepared. It looks like the manuscript for the book is kept in a university special collection and ominously is tagged as “prohibited works, forgeries, and hoaxes”. It is probably sandwiched between the Necronomicon and Valdemort’s Unauthorized Biography. Interestingly, unlike most books containing knowledge man was not meant to know, this one was written within the last half century, but I suppose it could quote liberally from ancient texts (with proper citation, of course) or even reproduce stone slab inscriptions on glossy plates. Prediction: Of course the dean isn’t going to give you permission to pull this volume out of the stacks — it practically reeks of world-destroying evil. You’ll have to climb up the book return chute of the library at night, crawl past the motion sensors in the reading room, and defeat the magic ciphers to enter the special collections. Then, more puzzles to find the right stack and ward yourself against mind control as you thumb the pages of this treatise on how to play the harmonica.

Domestic Elementalism – Our house, based on elemental principles, is malfunctioning and I’ll need some witchcraft to put it right. I would have thought this would fall more into alchemy, but every problem is a nail when you have a hammer, and according to the blurb, I’m a witch. The house itself is depicted in the cover art: a roof of stars on top of a square house frame, itself composed of colored blocks. The blocks remind me little of the sorts of heat maps you see in cluster analyses of gene transcripts, but I think it is more likely that the colors represent the elements. The colors are roughly divided into four quadrants, lower left (red, fire), lower right (green, earth), upper right (blue, water), and upper left (grey to white, air). Is space itself the fifth element? Very Luc Besson. Prediction: The house itself is an analogy for the world, and we’re working some sympathetic magic to put the world back in balance. Can some fancy witchcraft put us into compliance with the Paris Climate Accords?

VR Gambler – What is it with brains this year? Like Guttersnipe, this cover features a head in which the brain is highlighted. The brain is relevant since the story is set in a virtual reality room, so my guess is that the main character’s brain is jacked into some sort of simulation. The VR room is in a casino, so it is a fair bet [pun] that undertaking the VR adventure involves some risk, particularly if there is the prospect of winning big, as the neon sign above the doorway teases. Apparently, this setting is window dressing around a more classical dungeon crawl adventure. Prediction: I would be pleased to find out that this isn’t the whole story. We enter the casino, sign some sort of liability waiver and supply our credit cards to secure the wager, and enter the VR dungeon, with the understanding that we keep the equivalent value of what we loot in the virtual world, but that if we’re killed in the virtual world, well that would also have, let us say, ramifications. We could go a number of interesting directions from here — do we delve into the code world that underlies the medieval dungeon skin of this game? Do we have a successful dungeon crawl and leave the casino only to realize that we’ve been suckered into one of those situations where you can’t tell if the simulation is really over? Do we learn that we were already in a simulation when we entered the casino? Or maybe the VR thing is just a sham. We put on the VR goggles and someone stabs us, lifts our wallet and runs out of the casino.

Salt – This sounds, literally, immersive. Since it is best experienced with headphones, I have to assume that the soundscape is a key feature, and that the story is something of an environmental experience. The graphic depicts a head, with the eyes just above water, and the text describes a beach. I would guess that this piece is not heavily action or puzzle oriented, but is more contemplative. Prediction: When you enter the water, you get wet. Beyond that, you also discover unexpected hidden truths.

Inevitable – No graphic accompanies the blurb for this game. Since the blurb indicates that you are a time-traveller and the play duration is 15 minutes, I have to guess whatever time travel powers you have, they have their limits. You’re either stuck in a time loop or are jumping futilely, trying to avoid an outcome that is, as the title implies, inevitable. Perhaps that is the weakness of your invention, the time scryer. You can see what’s coming, but can’t do anything to avoid it. Prediction: If the game were truly a Waiting For Godot simulator, there wouldn’t be much of a point to playing, so there must be some way out. Paradoxes always wreak havoc with time travel, so I would make that my goal: something that violates logic and causality, and hence would be disruptive enough to throw me clear of the time loop (but ideally not kill me or any of my ancestors).

Something – Well, this game is guaranteed — through its mere existence — to live up to its title, right? The blurb: a washing dilemma. The graphic: a faucet knob. Prediction: A short game about why not to wash colors in hot water. Kind of a laundry morality tale.

Unit 322 (Disambiguation) – The title, cover art and blurb all relate to “an online encyclopedia”, okay, can we just say it? Wikipedia. The story is web-only, so this is an interesting use of the medium, where the player should have a very natural feeling experience of navigating a web browser just as if, well, it was a web browser. Prediction: This posits a world in which the term “unit 322” not only has a wikipedia entry, but is common enough that it requires disambiguation of the term. While Unit 322 could refer to a super-secret United Nations black ops team, I would prefer to believe that it is a building location: unit 322, where high energy experiments related to the structure of the multiverse took place. Due to an accident, multiple iterations of unit 322 from neighboring universes have materialized in ours. The incident was too widely observed to cover up, hence the need for disambiguation of the wikipedia articles relating to manifestation of unit 322.

Will Not Let Me Go – Looks like Stephen Granade has produced a tearjerker, about loss either of a spouse or functional loss of a spouse due to Alzheimer’s Disease. The cover art of a wedding ring and engagement ring are unambiguous. The blurb mentions a date eleven years ago, and that a character is so afflicted. Is the story told in the past, or was that the date that cognitive dysfunction was first noticed, and that character is essentially living in the past? I am not a huge fan of heavily emotional IF, but I have faith that Stephen can pull this off with the necessary grace. Prediction: It is tempting to predict that this will take a sci-fi twist, with some sort of experimental therapy, but I think that would undercut the emotional impact unless the treatment went the way of Flowers for Algernon in the end. No, I think this is a straightforward story of loss, but I bet that it is told in a non-linear fashion, since we’re talking about memory.

Ultimate Escape Room: IF City – This is a one-room escape IF about an escape room? Seems kind of meta. Maybe the goal is some sort of meta-level escape? Mind blown. I’m not too impressed with the cover art, which is just text, and the blurb itself doesn’t give me much insight about the main character, motivation, or where this will go. Prediction: The blurb describes a surreal escape from the “Wizard’s Rainbow”, so I will infer that the story is grounded in the Wizard of Oz, and that some story elements will carry over. If you win, do you find yourself in Kansas? Extra points if the story starts out in black and white and goes to color after the intro.

Rainbow Bridge – Not much to go on: cover art is a circle that looks like a color picker widget from Photoshop. Maybe it is. And there is no blurb. This goes to next to bottom on my to play list. Prediction: A maniacal leader of a prominent North American country demands that a wall be built in the middle of the bridge that leads from Buffalo, New York to Canada.

Haunted P – Sounds like a scary urinary tract infection. The graphic is the word “Bolbert”. Maybe that’s a company logo or a candidate for office. Not much context. The blurb promises fascinating miniature worlds and intricately modeled NPCs, which is fine, but I am more interested in the story than the way the story world is modeled. All we learn from the blurb is that there is a magical substance, P, and that it is haunted. When I read substance P, I initially thought this was a reference to the neuropeptide “Substance P”, which is a real thing, but no, I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes it can be effective for a blurb to create a sense of mystery and to not lay everything out for the player to preserve surprise, but in this case, I see no value to having this blurb; it is not effective in making curious or motivated to play this game. I hope I’m surprised and the game turns out to be great, but if so, this blurb undersells it. Prediction: A story about quantum physics involve spooky action at distance and the discovery of a new particle, designated P. This particle is a constituent of a new phase of matter, which has supernatural properties and seems to interact with phenomena previously described as psychic, such as apparition of ghosts and poltergeists. Now that P is detectable and can be quantified, these phenomena can be explained.

Rage Quest: Disciple of Peace – The cover art is a little Batman, a little Voltron — I guess given a spiky cowled armor helm, you see what you want. Informed by the blurb, however, it must be orc battle armor. The blurb puts forward an interesting premise – A monastery of orcs devoted to peace and self-discipline are attacked by humans. Holy reversed point of view, Batman! Prediction: Given their inherent nature, it is going to be a struggle to keep the orcs on the straight and narrow. I wonder if there is some sort of rage counter just under the surface of the game ticking towards the point where the orcs will cut loose and go berserk on the humans. Taking it a step further, perhaps the winning condition is that the orcs must allow themselves to be defeated. Through their example, they convert the humans to their ideology and sow the seeds for human civilization.

Charlie The Robot – The cover art depicts a kind of heavy duty, squarish robot, presumably Charlie. So far so good. The blurb is a little harder to parse. It starts on a kind of screwball note lamenting the disappearance of puppies, kitties, and fishies. Who talks that way? Is the main character a child? Wasn’t the loss of dogs and cats the event that gave rise to the original Planet of the Apes? Shouldn’t this exposition convey a more alarmed tone? And what is a Shrimp Shake? Well, at least for that I have a tentative answer. Given that the world is resource starved and overpopulated, a shrimp shake (maybe actually a farm-raised krill shake) would be a reasonably efficient high-protein drink. If this is confusing and rambling, that’s what I got out of the blurb. It sounds fun. I like robots, I like space travel to Mars, who doesn’t. And then the final line — your job is to find out the value of human existence? Who saw that coming? That’s all? In my two hours of play time, I just need to pin down that one answer? It took Douglas Adams four books to get to that question, so this must be some tight writing. Prediction: You and Charlie need to get off what’s left of this trashed planet of ours and stake out a new existence on Mars, where humans and robots can live in harmony. Also, spoiler: the answer is 42.

Mikayla’s Phone – The cover art depicts a cell phone. I think it’s an android. Not to go off on a tangent, but it would be really cool if the cover time and date actually updated in real time. Maybe this cant be done for security reasons on the forum, but in principle a bit of javascript could pull this off. Back to the review. There is no blurb, but the content warning flags anxiety and depression. I am more interested in escapist and puzzle-heavy IF than pieces that give off a negative vibe. On the game versus story divide, I lean towards game. Still, I do try, particularly when judging IFcomp, to spend some time on works that are outside my comfort zone. However, I am not keen about investing time in a work that does not provide a blurb. Prediction: A traumatic break up by text messages leaves a troubled teenager with poor self-esteem unable to function, but apparently not frankly suicidal, as I assume that would warrant a trigger warning of some sort.

Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth – The cover art looks like the cover of a leather bound book, with the title in gold leaf and some sort of grey blemish. I have absolutely no idea what that title means. The nine-word blurb doesn’t help much except to confirm the opinion that this involves a book with strange words. Prediction: During dinner, a friend drops a book on the table and says, “I have absolutely no idea what this is.” The rest of the game is a detailed simulation of eating dinner in five courses, perhaps with some dynamically generated content about each course, followed by a nice after dinner wine and cigars. As your guest departs, you admit that you don’t have the foggiest notion what the book is either, but hey, at least dinner was nice.

Goodbye Cruel Squirrel – This seems clear cut enough: you’re a squirrel, just like on the cover art, and your motivation, like most squirrels is hunger. But you must be an unusually altruistic squirrel, because not only are you concerned about stowing away nuts for your own future, but you are working to feed your whole squirrel tribe. Prediction: You are an urban squirrel, so you are more about getting to the trash barrels ahead of the raccoons than foraging for acorns. The urban setting also implies some danger for typically woodland creatures; so it is possible that the story ends poorly for the protagonist squirrel, say spread over a few feet of asphalt, giving the title some dramatic resonance.

Measureless to Man – Presumably an allusion to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, where “Alph, the sacred river, ran / through the caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.” This is consistent with the cover image, which appears to be an underwater photo. Contrast that with the blurb that mentions that you are flying over the seas “on the way home from Cairo”, so probably the Mediterranean, but I suppose it could just as well be Red Sea, depending on where home is. Regardless, you’re in a plane, but the story is about the bottom of the sea, so my prediction is that the flight does not go as planned. The warning statement about “Airplane danger of the kind that can exacerbate a fear of flying” also makes sense now. Prediction: You’ve had the fever for days and have been running a high fever. After falling asleep watching Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, it is no surprise that your dreams have spiraled off in a strange direction.

And When I Squint It Looks Like Christmas – The blurb describes this as a hypertext game aimed at children in which the protagonist, Polly, is whisked away on an adventure by an evil wizard. The evil wizards are really working overtime this year. The adventure involves various encounters, and apparently squinting. Prediction: Polly probably should have seen an ophthalmologist before leaving on this adventure, but she can get by with a little squinting. The strange faces that she makes while trying to read small type endears her to the woodland creatures, who help her convince the wizard to be good rather than evil simply through woodland animal peer pressure. I am not sure what the cover art has to do with this. It looks like a tree trunk that has gone through a posterization filter to decrease the number of colors. Could Polly’s vision really be that bad?

Bookmoss – Sounds like another entry this year about an academic special collection, which seems like a very specific sub-genre. In this one, a father-daughter pair visit a library, which apparently has its share of secrets. Prediction: The father is described as a bookworm, and I will take that literally. Until now, he has raised his daughter as a human, giving her books just often enough to quell her appetite, but to avoid full transformation. On her 16th birthday, as is the tradition, he brings her to a library, where the smell of the stacks will awaken her latent abilities and bring on the transformation. She and her father explore the bowels of the library and find a quiet, infrequently accessed collection of rare books, which they readily ingest. The pulp material, processed through enzymes in their gut, is excreted as bookmoss, the telltale droppings of the bookworm, and the material which they need to create a nursery for hatchlings. The daughter lays her eggs in this material and the pair leave the library, knowing that a new generation will hatch in ten to twenty years.

One way out – Sounds like an upbeat sequel to Satre’s No Exit. I would guess that this is something along the lines of a one-room escape scenario. The blurb describes a man with a broken heart and a woman with fears, and this is paralleled in graphic. In the blurb, what they need to escape from is described as a sphere, although I wonder if that was just to complete the rhyming scheme or if the sphere is metaphorical rather than a physical place. Prediction: After a husband’s heart attack, his wife logically concludes that his medical costs and reduced earning potential represent a financial liability, so she files for divorce. He convinces her to accompany him to a marriage counselor. The counselor, a scarecrow with impressive academic credentials, brings in an old buddy in a tin suit to help them with their cardiac and cognitive issues.

The Living Puppet – Yet another entry with nothing more than a copyright disclaimer. Bump to three from the bottom of the playlist. Next.

A Walk In The Park – The blurb says that the main character is a punk walking through a park. I wonder if there is a walkthrough for this walkthrough. The story seems to be about various encounters, but there isn’t enough detail in the blurb to get a sense of where this is going. Maybe it is going nowhere and this is just a walk simulator, or it could be a series of profound encounters, who is to say? The mohawked punk occupies the foreground of the cover art, with a cityscape in the background. A prominent feature of the skyline is a building with a radio or TV tower on top, putting out a strong signal. Prediction: You began hearing the voices when you wove aluminum foil into your mohawk, and when you turn your head in certain directions, you can also see fuzzy images of anything that was ever filmed in New York City’s Central Park. Overtime, you lose yourself, becoming involved in these scenes, until your life becomes a series of reruns with occasional movie specials.

Queer In Public: A Brief Essay – The subtitle: A hypertext essay about the Christian and LGBT community. I am curious about the motivation to render an essay as hypertext. In general, when I am reading a document for informational purposes, I prefer a flat or at least hierarchically ordered document. Every time I branch hypertext documentation, I feel like I need to remember the branching structure, so I can track back to the main thread that I was reading. I will take a look at this to see if it does anything interesting in terms of hypertext, but I’m not terribly interested in the intersection of these two topics. Prediction: This document will identify points of common interest for these overlapping communities and put forward some suggestions about how they can improve relations.

The Land of the Mountain King – The Land of the Mountain King cover art is the text, “Land of the Mountain King”. To me, that suggests that the Mountain King, while in charge of an impressive mountain, is very literal and not all that creative. On to the blurb: Ah, okay, the Mountain King is not the good guy. The main character is Kral, the Viking, and he’s tasked to bring down the King. No doubt TMK has lots of minions that you will need to encounter to make use of the random combat engine. Prediction: How does Kral feel about all this? He was having a passably agreeable Viking day until a creepy witch teleported him without his consent who knows how far from home. She rants on about how TMK must be defeated to restore peace, but how does Kral feel about that? He’s a Viking. His livelihood revolves around making war. Would peace put him out of a job? Since Kral doesn’t have much choice due to story structure, he’ll end up at the Mountain King’s Lair, but once there, maybe he can sit down to some grog and ham hocks and see if he can’t work things out with the King’s minions — the King himself probably has other things to do, and why would he want to disturb him. If Kral is lucky, he can give a good description of the witch to the minions and they can set out as a group to take her out of commission so no other Viking warriors will be harassed in the future. Suggested soundtrack: Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.

The Richard Mines – In this parser-based game set in post-WWII Czechoslovakia, the blurb alludes to an undiscovered mine harboring a Nazi factory. Prediction: Based on the unusual title, I have to conclude that the Nazis have been mining raw materials to create robotic clones of Richard Nixon. These cybernetic monsters will be infiltrated into the American government and, in time, insinuate themselves into the heart of the enemy’s government.

Redstone – A murder mystery set in a reservation casino. The game is described as a parser/choice hybrid, so it falls into the category of parser-based games with limited domain. If it were just menu-based, it would seem like overkill to use a system with full parser engine, so hopefully it takes advantage of other aspects of the parser as well. Prediction: Maybe I’m still thinking about Richards Mines, but wouldn’t it be cool if the authors had developed an entire parser-based IF system using redstone logic within Minecraft? In this story, you log onto the minecraft server, quarry enough raw materials to trade in for chips at the casino, and play poker with blocky low resolution cards. Suddenly, you notice that one of your fellow players has been murdered — a pickaxe sticks out of his head! Who dunnit?

Temperamentum – Does IFDB have a genre icon for stories involving dreams? If not, it should. Sounds like another story where nightmares are intruding on everyday life. Allusion is made to some dark past issues that must be resolved. Is it some variant of PTSD? The cover art is somber: a black and white picture of a face, the eyes obscured in darkness, perhaps a veil or just a matter of lighting. Prediction: Not mentioned in the blurb is that Dolores is a poodle. Abused by her former owner and picked up by the dog catcher, she is befriended by a schnauzer, Hank, at the pound. A kindly dowager adopts both and they settle on a comfortable country manor. Yet, Dolores thoughts are haunted by the cruelty of her former master.

The Silver Gauntlets – There is no cover art with this piece, but the blurb sounds original: the heroine has lost her arms protecting her father. She seeks a magical cure, but to find it, she must endure a dangerous quest. Her lack of arms will have some interesting implications in terms of game mechanics. How does she interact with objects? It sounds like the quest will involve combat and I’m curious how this will be portrayed assuming that the author is not trying to recreate the Black Knight scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Prediction: Ambrosine has not actually lost her arms; it is a metaphor. Her armor includes the titular silver gauntlets. In protecting her father against unwarranted accusations by a high ranking nobleman, she dirties her hands, or in this case, tarnishes her silver gauntlets. She is shunned by high society and this is the story of her redemptive journey through the social ranks to regain the confidence and respect of the royal court.

Tuuli – As I have remarked above, the wizard’s apprentice is a recurring theme, and often the apprentice has to either prove themself against tests set up by the senior wizard or take on the senior wizard in a contest. I guess “wizard” is too narrow a category, and more generally this theme would encompass magic users of any sort, be they sorcerers, shamans, witches, etc. A rose by any other name. In this case, junior assistant witch Lenne has to fill the shoes of her late master. High ho. Specifically, Lenne has to defend the town against a raiding fleet. I assume this is why the cover art features a picture of a coastline: the danger will arrive on the high seas. According to the blurb, this is a translated piece; it would be interesting to have a link to the original language version for the sake of comparison. Prediction: Crafty old Mákke the master witch isn’t really dead — she’s brewed up this scenario to put Lenne to the test, not because she doesn’t think Lenne is ready — quite the opposite in fact. Makké has been looking forward to retirement for years, but Lenne won’t be ready to assume the mantle until she gains some confidence. The encounter with the invasion fleet is just the right scenario to both bolster Lenne’s self-esteem and convince the village that she can handle the responsibilities of town witch.

Word of the Day – Speaking of a rose by any other name… This is a good example of an IFcomp blurb in which the picture, the title, and the description of the work do not appear to be related. I am sure that the author deliberately chose those elements and that they make sense in his mind, but if the purpose of the blurb is to catch the eye of the player and draw them to the game, it would be more effective if these three elements tied together in a meaningful way to the reader. The blurb conveys that this will be a sci-fi piece about a journey, and that the main character is an engineer on a vessel with biodrive. Prediction: Your job consists of shoveling reactor mass, in this case rose petals, into the Biodrive. It’s not a fun job, but it smells wonderful, which is what really matters to members of your species, the Olfaktoids.

The Skinny One – The cover art depicts an ice cream popsicle with a small bit take out. In small font at the bottom of the picture: “The mirror lies when the mind is broken”. That’s enough to convey to me that the piece is probably about eating disorders. I am guessing that the author’s name, Annie, is also a reference to anorexia, although I might be over-reading that. The blurb confirms this opinion. Prediction: Given the content warnings, I assume this a serious piece that explores eating disorders and altered body image from the perspective of an afflicted individual.

Run of the Place – Lacking cover art and with a gibberish author name and a description that promises vile racist language, I was ready to put this one at the bottom of my play list as a suspected troll entry, and perhaps it is, but the item that caught my eye was reference to the floo interpreter. Floo is an interpreted scripting language for Glk. That seems like a rather exotic choice for a work that is meant only to troll the competition. Prediction: This is a remarkably realistic Youtube comment generator.

Escape from Terra – Again, maybe we need an icon for the apocalpytic fiction sub-genre. We had 500 Apocalypses in the last IFcomp alone (with even more contributed by players). This piece does not look too promising: the author did not submit cover art, and the blurb consists of a sentence and a sentence fragment. If the author cannot take the time to spell out the word “2” or capitalize the Earth in this briefest of blurbs, do I really want to spend two hours wading through this game? Prediction: Two copy editors struggle to escape a world in which grammar and orthography have fallen prey to forces beyond our comprehension. 

The Castle of Vourtam – This story taps into a few tropes – you are an orphan hero and need to undergo a quest, oppose an evil wizard, and rescue the princess. There are puzzles and combat along the way. One interesting mechanic highlighted in the blurb is that you can choose character class, which will determine the weighting or difficulty of challenges faced. It is clear from the blurb that this author has some fairly elaborate backstory in mind, with references to place and character names and some back-story about the Kingdom itself. Prediction: After centuries, the original name of the castle has been perverted from the original: Castle FORTRAN. The castle’s codebase has deteriorated over time, and pointer overruns have opened the door to   execution of arbitrary code. The castle is now bogged down running futile code, and it is up to you to clean up the process table and revoke Vourtram’s escalated privileges. Only your uncanny knowledge of FORTRAN 66 and your skill with the ancient card puncher can save the kingdom.

Future Threads – Sometimes the conjunction “for” sets me off. To me it often conveys a sense of needy earnestness and a profound desire to be considered epic. When I come across it in literature from a hundred years ago, I don’t bat an eyelash, but for modern works, unless they are deliberately set in an earlier period, it seems strained. That is my first impression from this blurb. That’s not to say that this won’t turn out to be a great story; just that my initial impression is that the author’s voice is a notch too melodramatic. The artwork looks original, which is always a plus: a girl sitting in tall grass and surrounded by threatening shadows. At her side is a knife, so I have the impression that she is aware of the danger and can fend for herself, but in this picture appears despondent. The blurb accords that some threat, perhaps alien, is pursuing the girl, Kayla, with the intent to harm her. The blurb is addressed to some sort of a protector, who is also alien. In the blurb, the threat is stated in the future tense, so perhaps this protector is also prescient in some manner. The blurb does not indicate why Kayla is singled out as worthy of protection, but presumably this will be made clear in due course. Prediction: The protector must return to an obelisk by mid-day, which makes me wonder if this is some sort of struggle between light and darkness. The obelisk could represent a sundial. If the protector is also embodied in a shadow, it would metaphorically return to the obelisk every day at noon only to arise again in the afternoon as the sun moves towards the western horizon.

Swigian – A short pithy blurb suits this game, which is explicitly minimalist. What else do you need? Cover art is a Viking helm and the content warning mentioned mead halls. A half hour play time is plenty for some quality pillaging. Prediction: A mead hall simulator. Join Beowulf and his crew as they swig mead down by the docks.

What Once Was – It seems a lot of IF authors are either ABD doctor students or come from an academic background and are plagued by recurrent thesis defense nightmares. What if the main character in Violet could have put off writing this thesis forever by manipulating the flow of time? Looks like that option may be explored in the game, in which the main character is a doctoral student studying time travel. I love the prospect of exploring time travel in interactive fiction because interactive fiction is itself a stream of characters, with the ability to travel linearly or jump around. The tools themselves for writing interactive fiction are often premised on laying out different options along a story timeline. Couple that with the perils of academia, and we should have an entertaining story. I do worry about the two hour time limit. Is that subjective or absolute? Prediction: The game starts with the banner “YOU HAVE WON!” and works backwards from there, deriving its story from first principles and footnoting all references.

10 pm – The cover art isn’t much to look at: a black digital clock on grey background, but it get’s the point across — it’s ten o’clock. Where (and when) I grew up, local TV stations used to transmit a public service message at ten each night, and I wonder if that is the origin of this story: “It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” That would go along with the content warning regarding unhealthy parenting. Prediction: It’s ten o’clock and we don’t know where are children are. Perhaps they have wandered into one of the other adventures above and read aloud from one of the leather-bound volumes of unspeakable knowledge, unleashing the Ancient Ones. In any event, they may be late.

My night – The title is “My night”, but the cover art shows the sun high in the sky, so my initial assumption was that this story occurs at high latitudes, say St. Petersburg or Oslo. However, according to the blurb it takes place in Spain, so I am at a loss regarding the cover art. According the blurb, the story is about an 18-year-old girl who plans a weekend long party. Prediction: After stocking up on alcohol and heading out to the country house, the blurb asks how this weekend could go wrong? As a parent, I can imagine, but would rather not. Before my thoughts turn in that direction, since this my prediction, let me propose that she and her friends spend a quiet evening watching movies on videotape. Yes, that’s better.

The Very Old Witch and the Turnip Girl – Here’s reverse: it’s not about the young apprentice, but about the post-retirement age witch. The cover art is, I think, ink and water color of woman outdoors in a garden. If this is original artwork by the author, she gets extra points. Prediction: The blurb mentions motherhood, so my guess would be that the turnip girl is the witch’s child. Since witches often do not have a wholesome reputation in stories, it could well be that the Turnip Girl does not know her real parentage. Perhaps she was adopted in the village or maybe the witch even used some sort of spell to arrange that her child be born to another woman. Whatever the case, the witch has kept track of her offspring through the years, and in her elderly years (she’s not only an old witch, but a very old witch) is worried about her daughter’s future. With a name like Turnip Girl, her daughter probably doesn’t get many suitors, or the ones that come calling, like Cucumber Boy and Legume Lad, probably are not attractive prospects for matrimony. The goal of the story is to get Turnip Girl paired off, assure her financial prosperity, and maybe even encourage some grandchildren. Whether the witch arranges this through social engineering or potions is her call.

TextCraft: Alpha Island – The cover art is an ASCII rendering of a man on a desert island. That plus the title suggests that this is in some way a textual version of minecraft. Prediction: Last year I got taken to task for what many thought was a textual re-rendering of Pokémon Go, but my intent was this was just a mechanic, and apart from the story itself. I assume that this is the case here, and that the point is not to just reimplement minecraft in text form, but to leverage elements from Minecraft. In this case, I believe that the part that will carry over is the world building. You’re on an island, but it is explicitly stated that you have a cell phone. My guess is that phone is your sole tool. Since the island and perhaps your world are ASCII, reshaping your world should be a matter of text editing. I expect that this game will involve text manipulation. I see that it runs in Java, so maybe this will literally involve shifting letters around graphically, or it may hew closer to standard IF by involving word play or verbal puzzles.

Nyna Lives – The witch’s familiar is only a stone’s throw from the sorcerer’s apprentice, right? All the work, none of the glory? Presuming the cat in the cover art is named Nyna, the title suggests either repeated demise of the cat (nine lives) or that the cat survives (Nyna lives). Prediction: Perhaps the cat does both, making the witch’s name Schroedinger. I wonder if the Nyna Cat is any relation to the Nyan Cat?

8 Shoes on the Shelves – The picture is a black and white photograph, but I’m sure what it depicts or why it is presented as a circle interrupted by a line. The blurb mentions a soldier in the Flemish countryside, so I am guessing this is the First World War and that the picture is supposed to be a trench. According to the blurb, the soldier is looking for some sort of buried treasure, which if trench warfare were going on, would seem to be a dangerous pass time. Prediction: If I were a soldier who had spent too long in the damp trenches, I might well want a new pair of shoes too. But who would have buried four pairs of shoes? Ik ken niet.

Day of the Djinn – The cover artwork appears to be a photo taken above a layer of clouds or at least low fog. The lighting is at a shallow angle, so let’s say it is either sunrise or sunset. I suppose this makes sense if you’re a djinn, because you could fly magically or at the very least make use of a flying carpet. Per the blurb, you’re forced to flee your home by a curse and must undergo a journey involving a series of puzzles and encounters. Prediction: No particular endpoint is mentioned for the journey, but the blurb says that you learn about your homeland along the way. Maybe you learn enough to be able to countermand the curse and return to your home.

Black Marker – The artwork for the Black Marker is a series of black lines over a white background. Since according to the blurb, you work for an intelligence agency, I would interpret the cover art to be a heavily redacted document, with every word crossed out and made illegible by black marker. Prediction: That was your job — redacting documents on a need to know basis to protect sensitive information. To do that job, you would need to first read the documents, though, so you could well be in a position of knowing too much. That knowledge might be enough for your agency to consider your continued existence a liability.

 

8 thoughts on “IFcomp 2017: First Impressions”

  1. I’m the author of Very Old Witch and the Turnip Girl, and I’m kicking myself for not having a character named Legume Lad. I regret everything.

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