The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from IFComp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media, and he was drawn to several of the choice-based games. Without further ado…
Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer. Neither I nor anyone I know (that I’m aware of) has games entered into this competition.
This was my first time reviewing anything from IF Comp, so I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a relative newcomer. As such, my opinions are obviously my own, not Emily Short’s.
There are quite a few games in this year’s competition – seventy-seven in total – of which I played about thirty. What really leapt out at me was the sheer variety of gameplay experience. Let’s Rob a Bank, for instance, was stupidly fun but over so quickly that I felt I hadn’t really gotten the full value until I’d played it multiple times (which I was happy to do.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannery Vale, with its sophisticated interface and immersive story, was much more involved, and was a standout as far as shaping the player’s adventure.
Here are three I really liked, in no particular order:
Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)
To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much with this one, based solely on my reaction to reading the blurb. (Blurbs can be tricky. Sometimes they’ll capture the basic premise of a piece, but they won’t communicate the tone. This was the case here.) Animalia’s description mentioned it was a 30-minute game. I figured it would be a simple, paint-by-numbers animal adventure…
…so I was completely unprepared for Waddell’s off-the-wall humor and the remarkable variation of storylines contained inside.
Animalia kicks off with an emergency gathering of woodland creatures. The annual offering to the Forest God has backfired, putting the forest at risk for human incursion. During the opening chaos we learn that the animals’ offering was, in fact, a nine-year-old human child (!) named Charlie. It seems like this ritual is all fairly routine for the cuddly little murderers, but this time their child sacrifice has been getting obnoxious texts from his worried mother, who has tracked his GPS location. Now the entire forest is in an uproar over the inevitable search-and-rescue that will bring a deluge of humans.
The critters’ solution to this disaster? Stage an elaborate cover-up, obviously.
The council selects four animals to pilot a “replica” of the sacrificed child (how a bunch birds and forest mammals are able to whip up a convincing duplicate human is not important.) One animal controls the head, one the torso, and one each for the arms and legs. As a a player, you choose which four animals will comprise your squad. Those selections affect how well you will later be able to respond to certain challenges, as the team must navigate the pitfalls of an average nine-year-old’s school day, managing class assignments, friendships, and home life.
Replay options abound. It would take 81 attempts to use every unique combination of animal pilots, so any two players will likely have a different experience based on team selection alone.
The design is straightforward, but the elements are all used exceptionally well in service of the story. Status levels include the fake-Charlie’s appearance and his relationships with other characters. A simple, accessible display makes this all very easy to track, so the game would be an excellent starter-game for someone with limited experience of playing IF.
The real star of this game is Waddell’s writing and unpredictable dialogue, which keeps the story moving at a crisp pace. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, and given the myriad ways the story can go, I got the feeling I’d just scratched the surface despite playing it three times with different squad members. It’s ridiculous, yes, but completely aware of the fact, and the player is in on the joke. The game can end well or it can end disastrously, but even in the latter cases, it is always unapologetic fun.
The concept of Grimnoir feels familiar enough. ProP mixes two well-known genres: the pulp detective novel and monster-hunting stories––a bit as if Raymond Chandler were writing “Supernatural” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” But despite its simple premise, there is a wealth of world-building just under the surface. The writing and character development elevate this game to being a standout.
Grimnoir is structured as a series of mysteries, wherein your “occult detective” protagonist investigates crimes and tries to identify which creatures or spirits are responsible. At the end of each case, a correct identification will give you a chance to guess the creature’s motives and bring the investigation to a successful conclusion. A mistake will result in you getting killed, though the game makes it easy to go back and guess again.
Grimnoir was another game that contained significantly more story content than I had anticipated at first glance. There are seven or eight mysteries in total, and the decisions you make along the way will alter the way you deal with the final, most difficult challenge. While you gather clues in each case, you can seek help from your assistant or consult your Grimoire, an encyclopedia of monster names (playing this game will acquaint you with a variety of world folklore, as the creatures in the story are pulled from mythologies from many different cultures.)
As episodic as the game feels, there is a through-line, and it’s rooted in your character. The overarching unfolding of the world and the characters’ backstories evokes short-form television, while recurring characters pop in and out in order to maintain the game’s unified feel. Grimnoir’s playing time is listed at two hours, but I think it took me between three and four, as I was frequently spending time absorbing information from the Grimoire, researching, and attempting to soak up the atmosphere. The use of music and ambient sound (rain, in particular) is frequent but never becomes a distraction.
Nothing groundbreaking in terms of design, but standout world-building, writing, and imagery. Escapist and memorable. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla, Marijke Perry)
Erstwhile gives us another entry into the mystery genre, but unlike Grimnoir, there is only one mystery here, and it’s your murder.
The game gives you the premise right away. It begins with your demise and your transformation into ghost-hood. You watch as your friends are all brought in for questioning, and you determine to suss out which one of them killed you. But unlike the (living) detective who is listening to their testimonies, you have the ability to enter suspects’ minds unseen as they’re talking, and explore their memories.
The game plays a bit like the board game “Clue,” in that a) the majority of gameplay is spent information-gathering, and b) all this research leads up to a decision about whom to accuse. As a ghost, you can’t actually stand there and accuse someone, but you can temporarily possess them and force them to confess. Of course, it’s entirely possible you’ll guess incorrectly, leading you to evaporate into the afterlife with a deep sense of guilt and failure… so you’d better do your homework.
How you do that homework is the extraordinary invention of this game.
In Erstwhile, memories are treated like physical objects. After experiencing someone else’s memory, you can save it for later, essentially “adding it to your inventory.”
In addition, once you’ve picked up an assortment of these experiences and have created a collection of memories, you can start linking them together, pairing connected memories and clues (often culled from different minds) in order to arrive at further revelations about the truth.
This mix-and-match approach to various perceptions of reality is unlike anything else I saw in the competition. Making the player an active participant in the creation of a story may be a primary characteristic of IF, but making them an active participant in creating the backstory, especially in this way, is much less common. It’s an intriguing approach to storytelling that would not work in just any medium, and as such, Erstwhile gets points for exploring those possibilities that are unique to IF.