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[IF Comp 2019] Dull Grey by Provodnik Games

(I'm here analysing a fantastic piece of interactive fiction, and the analysis will contain spoilers. So do yourself a favour and play it first!)

The first thing one notices about Dull Grey is how it looks. Provodnik Games's previous piece, Railways of Love, was presented as a retro pixel-art game, which was nice enough; but for Dull Grey the authors have chosen to use a large-scale visual background. As the story progresses, we move and zoom through the white, grey and black landscape, focusing on one or another location. The art style reminded me slightly of the cover art of Radiohead’s Kid A, the haunting and sometimes obsessive sounds of which would in fact work nicely as a soundtrack to this piece. Speaking about soundtracks, Dull Grey in fact comes with background music. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive on subsequent playthroughs, but it does set the tone nicely.

Like Railways of Love, Dull Grey takes place in the world of the Progress Program, which I described last ye…

[IF Comp 2019] Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

I haven’t played anything by Robin Johnson, I think, but I know his Detectiveland won the competition a few years ago. That’s a pretty high recommendation. Silly pirates is not a theme I’d otherwise be too interested in, but I can have fun with the genre. Indeed, I wasted quite some hours this summer playing through an electronic version of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones. That was dark, and this isn’t going to be dark if the cover and blurb are any indication. Still – I’m up for some good pirate fun.

(As in all my IF Comp reviews, spoilers follow; in this one especially, some puzzle solutions will be given away. If you just want an impression, you can skip to the last paragraph.)

Pirateship is a classic adventure in which you explore a map, collect objects, use those objects to solve puzzles, and finally find a treasure. It doesn’t get much more classic than that, and the puzzles too feel very traditional. Some guy is making breakfast in front of a gate; if you wan…

[IF Comp 2019] Randomized Escape, by Yvan Uhlmann

Randomized Escape is a game in which you have to escape from a randomly generated area of vacant lots, unnamed streets, discarded junk and, worst of all, ghostly apparitions. To do so, you must find several clues and items that are also randomly distributed, and then go through a rusty door. This is a sound set-up. With the right design, one could create a game that offers fresh challenges on every go; or that at least offers some variety while the player attempts to stitch together the solution.

Unfortunately, the actual game is all but unplayable. The first thing that we notice is that the prose is very hard to follow. The chosen style is disoriented horror: the protagonist, losing his or her mind, thinks in extremely disjointed sentences and has highly disconnected experiences. Achieving clarity while using this style is hard even for a talented writer of English. But Yvan Uhlmann is clearly writing in a second language here, and the prose is hard to get through. Here…

[IF Comp 2019] The Mysterious Stories of Caroline by Soham S

This has been a difficult review to write. I wanted to like this piece, but I believe it gravely mishandles its highly sensitive content in at least one of the possible endings.

Before I get to that, I want to say something about the interface first, just to get it out of the way so that we can then focus on the narrative content of the game. The Mysterious Stories of Caroline uses quite a bit of sound, and lots and lots of timed content. Neither made my experience more enjoyable. Whenever a sound clip started, Spotify would fall silent, the sound clip would play, and then Spotify would not restart. I’m willing to listen to your game’s continuous soundtrack, but small sounds that interrupt my own background music… preferably not. The timed events were even more annoying. I like to play a game at my own pace; having to wait after I have finished reading, just because the choice links have not yet appeared, interrupts that experience. This is, of course, especially notable…

[IF Comp 2019] Each-uisge by Jac Colvin

Each-uisge is a supernatural horror story set in Scotland and based on Scottish mythology. You play a child of around ten years old who has to confront an animal that may be just a horse, but is probably either a dangerous kelpie or an even more dangerous each-uisge. In spite of the prominent horror elements you can’t actually die, I believe, and the entire piece feels like it’s aimed at perhaps a younger teen audience. (The blurb tells us that parental guidance is recommended for younger children, though I’m not sure how I’d guide a younger child through a story in which you can callously let loose a monster that will kill your neighbour.)

What I like most about the piece is that it takes this rather unknown bit of mythology – no vampire or werewolf or other overused creature – and keeps us in suspense about what kind of story is going to unfold around it. For a while, I thought it was going to descend into full-scale horror, with me being devoured by the demonic horse …