Here’s another bunch of reviews for the Interactive Fiction Competition. They are, respectively, for “A Killer Headache”, “Eurydice”, and “howling dogs”. Once again, sweeties, there are spoilers.
“A Killer Headache”, by Mike Ciul
You are a zombie. You must find brains to eat, and then find eternal rest. Also, your limbs keep falling off, which is super inconvenient when you can only carry with you as many items as can fit in your hands.
This is one of those old school “save early, save often” games where you can not only die, but also get stuck in dead ends. I made use of hints a LOT, which led me to learn I had to repeat an entire section when I’d accidentally left an important thing I needed at the end of the game in a location I couldn’t get back to. Fortunately, this is a short enough game that doing so didn’t bother me as much as it would have in, say, an Infocom title. Still, this is precisely why I’ve never been able to bring myself to finish any adventure game released before The Secret of Monkey Island.
That said, it’s well implemented and tested for what it is, and the writing’s decent for a zombie game, enough for me to actually want to play to the end. I liked the flashback portions that showed how you got here, when you and your friends were trying to escape the zombie apocalypse and they got your best buddy Jim, who is now a severed head living in your fridge. (Alas, poor Jim.) A bunch of Catholic imagery is present as well, which I’m only passingly familiar with, making me rely once again on hints to figure out, say, how to operate a rosary. But it added a, well, human element to the game, which is what I tend to look for in interactive fiction. So, yay for that.
Maybe old-school Infocom and zombie genre fans might love this one more, though. Probably. Hmm.
“Eurydice”, by Anonymous
As the title indicates, we’re in a modern retelling of the Orpheus in the Underworld story. Your friend Celine has recently died and, finding the company of people gathered in your house in bereavement insufferable, you go for a walk outside. During your walk, you meet some pseudo-classical puzzle characters who somehow lead you to the mental hospital where Celine was staying before she died, where you make a deal with a doctor representing Hades to allow you to take her home with you. Or not. There are four possible endings, each implying something about how your character is processing their grief.
The first one I got was the supernatural escapism one that follows the source myth exactly, in case you’re wondering. But then, I’m somewhat of a cloudcuckoolander. Or I just start every playthrough by following directions as I’m told. Or something.
In contrast to the old school zombie adventure I just played, this is a very new-school, almost-puzzleless, explore-everything talk-to-everyone literary sort of game. It deals with heavy subject matter without being in the least bit sappy or overwrought, as similarly themed games sometimes tend to, veering instead into the self-consciously sarcastic direction. The protagonist’s friends are annoyingly hipsterish but still believable enough as their friends, for the most part, and the thoughts and memories uncovered by exploring one’s surroundings read like things a real person would think about a late loved one. Well, an educated, middle class, UK-based young adult with geeky interests, anyway.
So, yes, close enough to my experience to resonate with me, personally, but still far enough to feel like it’s happening to someone else. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, I generally prefer when interactive fiction has me play as a well-defined character rather than “as myself”. I have to be myself all the rest of the time and prefer to play games to escape that, you know? If anything, I wished the player character were more defined, rather than less.
I was able to glean from the about text that this is the anonymous author’s first foray into writing IF with Inform, and it shows a little, with some described objects not recognised by the parser and one slightly broken part in one of the endings.  That said, it could have been much, much worse, so yay for that.
“howling dogs”, by Porpentine
You’re trapped in some kind of futuristic chamber, with food and drink dispensers, a shower, and a photo of a mysterious woman pinned to the side of your bunk. Every day, you enter some sort of virtual reality room and live out some kind of scene — one day, it’s a scorned woman killing her male partner; one day, it’s a war zone; one day, it’s Joan of Arc about to be executed. The longest scene is one involving the assassination of a queen of some strange land where buildings are living creatures.
The first time I played through, I was very confused. I played through it again, finding the second ending (yes, there is one) and was… well, slightly less confused. I don’t quite know who I am and why I’m meant to be in this place, but maybe that’s deliberately ambiguous? Anyway. The prose is well-written, in an abstract, poetic sense. I get the feeling I’ll be thinking about it further in the days to come — or at least, eagerly reading other people’s impressions of it.
The game’s written in Twine, so it’s HTML-based hypertext. It’s a bit more sophisticated than most Twine games I’ve played, what with there being an actual puzzle present — there’s a point where brute-force clicking all the links doesn’t quite help, or at least, doesn’t get you to the more desired place. There’s also a sense of time passing, and variables that change as you go through the story; as the days go on, your shower and garbage disposal stop working, and you’re basically wallowing in your own filth.
Still, as much as I like web-based hypertext games, having made one myself last year… this is one where I find myself wondering whether it might have worked better with a parser interface. It felt like there were a lot of spatial exploration possibilities, which is what parsers tend to do well. Plus, I would’ve liked to “x me” at various points in the game. Then again, the point-and-click interface has the advantage of accessibility, especially to those not super familiar with IF. It’s a tradeoff.