Category Archives: Critical Review

IFComp 2014: Begscape

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here:



By Porpentine

Choice-based / Twine

Play online:
(This game is mobile friendly.)

highly randomized fantasy begging sim or bleak slot machine poem


This is a begging simulator created in Twine with a very minimalist fantasy setting. You can choose to beg, causing a random event, and sometimes you can choose – or are forced – to leave and beg at a new city. Sometimes people give you money, sometimes they ignore you, and sometimes they react abusively. Often you die, from random events or starvation and tiredness. There is no other interaction – you have no control over the events.

I could dig into the subject matter in this review and talk about society, homelessness, begging, the vulnerability and invisibility of our underclass. Instead, I want to talk about meaningful choices and the games that subvert them.

Game developers spend a lot of time thinking about how to give players meaningful choices. It’s one of the holy grails of game design that people have lectured, written, and argued heatedly about within the game industry. Since I have a lot of students that read my blog, here’s some articles and talks I recommend on the topic of meaningful choice:

If you take our word for it, then meaningful choices are about giving the player control over the events in the game and imbibing each choice with appropriate, significant consequences. Choice is the key to allowing players to test their skill, develop short-term and long-term strategies, express themselves creatively or morally (such as in Minecraft or Fable, respectively). In some games, the choices may be who you kill, what items to craft, which spell to use, what kind of unit to build, how you spend your resources, or where to explore. Almost every game is filled with choices, big and small, since choice is usually tied to the main gameplay mechanics.

I would argue that the lack of choice is meaningful in its own right when done carefully and deliberately.

“Begscape” is a good example of this. By taking away choice and taking away control from the player, it’s demonstrating the lack of agency a (metaphorical) beggar has in society: they exist at the whims of others. To play in this role, the player must relinquish their power, a situation completely contrary to any player’s natural expectation that games serve as their own personal power fantasies. Now, when I talk about power fantasies I’m not talking about saving-the-world-and-getting-the-girl sort of fantasies, but rather fantasies of power and agency. We construct artificial worlds and then fill them with rules that give players power and agency over that world and everything within it. We create a fiction where players act as the most powerful characters – warriors, conquerors, heroes, gods – where power is a reflection of meaningful choices.

Below, I’m going to talk about these games (all short, free games):

All of these games deliberately and intentionally rob the player of meaningful choices using a variety of techniques, and all of these games are, narratively, about power.

In “Good Fortune”, the player has only two choices: pray for good fortune to deliver you from poverty, or check the mail slot for that never-arriving good fortune. It’s a lot like “Begscape”, just replace “beg” with “pray”. If you think “Good Fortune” isn’t a very good game and that the lack of consequences means the choices are meaningless, all you have to do is look at the fifty-five pages of comments on the game’s page filled with different interpretations and debates about religion and the role of hard work.

Next up is “Depression Quest”, a Twine game about – you guessed it – depression. The player does have agency in the beginning of the game, with plenty of choices with significant (but small) consequences. As the depression sets in over time, the player’s choices are taken away – still there, visible but struck out, taunting you with paths you can no longer take. Here, we see first-hand how depression can rob a person of their own agency, how mental illness can exert control over your life. Even if you know what action you should take to right things, that doesn’t mean you are actually able to take it.

“Calories” is actually the very first Twine game I ever played. It’s extremely short and covers life in a day for a young woman with an eating disorder.  Choices in the game are almost entirely about food, and time passed is marked by meals or snacks.  Anyone familiar with eating disorders will know that they are, for the most part, not about food but about power. Many people who suffer from eating disorders feel powerless in their lives, and food is the one way in which they feel like they can assert control over their own lives. These insignificant choices of “eat an apple” or “eat nothing” grow to become disproportionately significant to reflect the protagonist’s obsessive thought patterns. (The ending of “Calories” is also a narrative about power and agency, but I won’t get into that here).

“Save the Date” looks on the surface like a simple narrative about a date with a girl, but ends in her death. The title gives you an implicit goal to save your date, but each time you replay it doesn’t matter what choices you take – she always dies. The player retains information (the knowledge this is a game, how she dies, etc.) and is presented with more choices on each replay. But the player can never actually circumvent fate and eventually comes to the conclusion that they cannot win and must choose to give up. The only way to prevent your date’s death is to never go on the date in the first place, or hack the game to reach an ultimately unsatisfying and unearned ending.

There are of course other games that play on agency and power. “Stanley Parable” and “Portal” both lift the curtain between game designer and player. They still give players choices – often to deliberate disobey the carefully constructed game rules – while narrators mock them for it. These are games that, while being about agency, still give the player a great deal of agency rather than take it away.

I think we focus a lot on player agency without really touching on how lack of agency can also be meaningful. Our games are often power fantasies, and we know that taking away power – usually in the form of abilities – can have a strong emotional effect on players. If you want to make a player cry, then take away something they love – take away their agency, not a meaningless sidekick. I would argue that the real reason people were so upset that Aerith in “Final Fantasy 7” died is because as the party healer she was the single most useful character in the game. By killing her – and taking away those abilities – Sephiroth becomes the player’s villain, not just Cloud’s.

Taking choice away from the player unfortunately falls into the category of “gimmick” – a one-use technique that doesn’t bear out over time. The effect can be powerful, but it’s also short. Continue to take away player agency and they will lose interest. If you make an entire game about lack or loss of player agency and players will not last very long unless the game has a great deal of other content to distract the player, like in “Dear Esther”. When this technique does appear in larger games it’s usually during the early introduction (given great powers and then stripped of them at the real start of the game) or at the tail end of Act 2 (a low point in the narrative – capture by the enemy, death of an ally, failure to stop the bomb, etc.).

I don’t think “Begscape” is the best example of how lack of choice is meaningful in its own right, but it does follow a trend in experimental art games to explore what role choice and agency can have in games if you abandon the idea that all games are power fantasies.

IFComp 2014: AlethiCorp

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here:



By Simon Christiansen

Custom Format

Play Online:
To play, sign up at the website and apply for a job. Yes. Really.

Do you have what it takes to be an Associate Information Management Consultant with one of the world’s largest information management companies? Can you leverage synergies with the best to operationalize our global market traction? If you were a bear, would you be an American Black Bear or a Siberian Brown bear? If the answer is Yes, apply today!


I loved this game because I love the genre (or subgenre?) it’s in. It relies on a technique called false documents that are all about trying to make your fiction appear as nonfiction constructs. Mainstream games use false documents all the time as intel pieces – letters, emails, coded messages you intercept. Gone Home is a game built entirely upon false documents, and it’s common trope in any investigative or clue-finding game. This is the “mockumentary” of video games.

Since it’s Spooktober I’m going to off on a tangent. There’s a whole style of writing called “creepypasta”, a term for creepy internet horror stories pretending to be “real events” often using false documents like fake forum messages, fake facebook messages, fake tweets, and so on so forth. Some of my favorites are the old school  classic Ted’s Caving Page or the mixed media Dionaea House or the one about the dead girlfriend on Facebook or the entire SCP Foundation wiki or the wonderfully bizarre eHow-style Instructions for a Help. There’s so, so many more.

In the case of AlethiCorp, false documents are in the form of a fake interactive corporate website where you apply for a job, fill out a personality test, and then do all your work (remotely, I guess) using the company portal. You can send and receive emails, sign up for social events, and even take an online class! The game puts a lot of effort into selling you the idea of this website being a real company employee portal. (I really want to know if they used any tools specifically to make this game, because it’s quite clever).

This game most reminded me of is Extrasolar, another game focused around a corporate website where you can apply for a job (volunteer, really) manning a rover on an extrasolar planet. Like AlethiCorp, the corporation has ulterior motives and you develop connections with hackers looking to take down the system. (I highly recommend Extrasolar). Some of the mechanics in AlethiCorp also reminded me of Christine Love’s games. In Digital: A Love Story you have the ability to read emails and “respond”, receiving canned emails back in the same form you can send emails or flag items for further analysis in this game.

All this – without really getting into what AlethiCorp is about – shows that the game’s functional conceit is interesting enough to make it worth playing. Technically, this is a choose-your-own adventure, only the choices aren’t binary “Choose X or Y right now” that you tend to see in branching stories. Instead, the branching happens more naturally and just involves you using the system at your disposal (deleting evidence or flagging suspicious activity, for example). It’s a more organic and more engaging way of interacting with a choice-based system.

So what is it about? AlethiCorp is about inept people being inept, especially when they are trying to do Serious Stuff TM like invade privacy with an Orwellian surveillance state, effectively manage a multi-billion dollar corporation with appropriate synergy, herd radical left activists, empower the oppressed, write self-published dystopian novels, dismantle the government from within, and share recipes. Actually, it’s pretty good about the last part. I received a lot of unsolicited recipes from my supervisor at AlethiCorp.

As a new hire, you’re tasked with investigating a possibly “subversive” element – an amateur, self-published writer who’s currently begging bookstores to carry his anti-government book, and whose own father is telling him, “Look, kid, this writing is shit.” Investigation involves reading reports (which are humorously penned by someone who relentlessly mocks the idealistic nonsense, comparing it unfavorable (!) to Atlas, Shrugged), and reading intercepted emails, phone transcripts, and in-person reports by information officers. You can then flag these items for follow-up investigation, fill out your eight-hours in the time card, and return the next day for more information.

The writing in the game is a solid A++ and I found myself entertained by the jokes, both explicit and implied if you read between the lines. The corporate culture is satirized but a bit too on-the-nose at times – the silly online course on “Hakka” was a painfully accurate description of agile development. An HR member keeps sending pictures of trains out – I guess that’s the 2054 equivalent of comic sans and cat memes (or maybe that’s just my company…?). I reached my maximum lifetime quota of the word “synergy”.

The surveillance culture isn’t treated seriously either. You can even flag other analysts at the company, who then has to analyze her own analysis of the “subversive” literature for subversive content. Spies go on dates with persons of interest, and then make the company foot the bill. Your supervisors cheer you on for finding subversive content in emails that have nothing of the type. There’s a lot of meaningless pep talk like below:

However, management is concerned that a greater than normal percentage of people examined have been determined to be unsuspicious. Obviously, you can’t find what isn’t there, but let’s be extra diligent that we aren’t missing any genuine suspicious activity. Sometimes, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees. Remember: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance!

Meanwhile, you find yourself reading about a radical left activist group at the local college spreading pamphlets full of jargon they copy-pasted from other jargon, referred to as “haphazard excerpts from Baby’s First Radical Textbook” by your fellow analyst. They are trying to fight the system and educate the ignorant, oppressed masses from within their elite, privileged, Ivy League bubble and all they can think of is a bit of harmless destruction of property. And yet, even there they are frozen into inaction because they need to vote. Again, the satire is very on-the-nose here, mocking college activists as slackivists, idealists, and generally totally out of touch with real issues.

There are some other small story threads – the amateur novelist, the journalist trying to write a story on the next generation, the secret anti-government group that appears to be just as inept as the corporations it’s fighting. The ending I received was humorous and fit right into the whole “everyone is inept, even you” kind of plot.

“We’re lucky that Miss England was finally caught,” says Oskar Jönsson, head of IT security for the UK branch. “After she had won the trust of her colleagues, she proceeded to delete as much data as possible, severely disrupting an important AlethiCorp investigation.”

In hindsight… it was obvious that I would get caught. I wasn’t a very good traitor.

Ultimately, the game is a fun diversion that reminds me a little of Burn After Reading or Hudsucker Proxy (but that gives Alethicorp maybe a little too much credit). You can see the potential of the game to turn into a Coen Brothers-style comedy of errors about inept people and comic misunderstandings, but it doesn’t really have a satisfying conclusion and doesn’t up the stakes over time. It’s more of a slice-of-life story in this light-hearted corporate dystopia than a riveting story with a strong plot arc.

IFComp 2014: Icepunk

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here:



By pageboy

Choice-based / Twine

Play online:

“You are the sole remaining inhabitant of an artificial world above a bizarre, inhospitable earth. A feral child raised by robots, you have just discovered the central computer of your Habitat, and unravelled the tale of a terrible catastrophe. But there is hope. Your task, as the heir to the human race, is to gather the data left in cold storage in the computers of the Caelan Cylinder, and from the icy landscape therein. You will face the wild processes of dead elemental minds, and see many maddening things in your journey through a landscape crawling with material informatics… all on a quest to create a future.”

Icepunk is an experimental work combining a procedurally generated world, prefabricated content, non-linear exploration, public domain literature and social media excerpts – to probe the possibilities of Interactive Fiction.



There’s a lot of interesting things going on in Icepunk, as you can tell from the blurb. It manages to deliver on its promising, though implementation had some problems.

You are the last human in a frozen, artificial world of golems and data imitations of a culture long since vanished. It tells you all matter contains “code” and “data”, and if you want to create a golden age – to reinvigorate life, to transcend from this desolate experience – you only have to collect data and bring it back to serve a “rebirth” program.

This leads you to exploring an ASCII landscape, procedurally generated with open world exploration that allows you to enter ice, mountains, habitats, and others rather nondescript regions in search of data.


Technically this game introduces some new mechanics unfamiliar in choice-based games. I’ve never seen an overworld map done in Twine before, though it’s obviously possible since anything done in HTML or Javascript can be done to the Twine .html output. Each square icon – above – allows me to enter it and investigate it for data. This “data” takes many physical forms and is erased – empties from the world – when I convert it into terabytes.

Essentially, the player is entering a frozen museum, and instead of artifacts of the past it’s populated with animatronics mimicking forgotten species and excerpts of great literature, seemingly abandoned arbitrarily within its wastes. These excerpts are pieces such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and Samuel Taylor Cooleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, all works referencing the environment, animals, and mankind’s relationship with them.

An example of the information generated and quoted for you:

Gregory struck out with his stick at the lamp-post, and then at the tree. “About this and this,” he cried; “about order and anarchy. There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself—there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

“All the same,” replied Syme patiently, “just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

After you take the data, it says:

The park smooths out, its mockeries of lamps giving no more light in death than they did in life.

There’s such a sense of loss here. You destroy the rich literature, the flora and fauna, the remains of culture and civilization and existence in the quest for data. You transform this meaningful “matter” into 1’s and 0’s, filling up an arbitrary meter that will trigger enlightenment. It’s a formulaic way of looking at mankind’s lasting effect on the universe, as those 1 + 1 = 2 is the only information you need in order to churn out a golden age. I steal these dreams, compress them, and convert them for the machines.

However, you could say these objects provide no enrichment to others in this frozen, uninhabited shrine. If there is no one to experience and interpret the art, is it still art? Is there loss if no one in living memory had ever read these excerpts, or observed penguins, or understood human creations? What purpose do they serve in their often buggy imitation lives out on the artificial ice world?

The ideas present in the game bring up more questions than answers, which is a compliment to the medium. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a lot of problems.

The more environments you enter, the slower the game gets, choked by whatever code is creating these procedurally generated regions. By the time I reached 80% of my data collection goal, I felt the game was practically unplayable due to its slowness. I question if it was properly playtested, since this should have been caught early and either optimized or the exploration and data collection shortened to about half it’s current requirement. I imagine most people who play it will not finish it (assuming I am not the only one with the slow-down problem) – but on the flip side, the ending was ultimately unsatisfying. Thematically, of course, the idea of being weighed down by data suits the game very well. You march slowly through frozen lands with this increasing burden of 1’s and 0’s. An unintentional but an interesting side effect.

The other problem lies with the prose. When kept short the language is adequate, but many times the author tries to create lasting, poetic images or give you heavy-handed backstory. In both situations the prose falls flat and in dire need of an editor. The game contains a lot of passive tense and purple prose, and more adverbs than should be legal. Phrases like “screeching soundlessly” are trying for something evocative, but falling into absolute meaninglessness. The writer hasn’t internalized the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”. For a short example:

It is a cold and dark place deep beneath your Habitat. And there is a great weight here, like you are in a place of infinite delicacy… somewhere you are not supposed to be.

Interesting ideas, but poorly worded prose. Note all the passive tense – everything is described using the verb “to be”. One way to rewrite this to move it from show to tell is:

You shiver in this dark, cold place beneath your Habitat. A great weight presses down on the room, held up only by a delicate balance. You are a trespasser here.

Before anyone rolls their eyes – no, it’s not the best, just an example. It’s punchier. It describes what you are DOING, not simply OBSERVING in the world. I can make the same line edits across the board and the game will flow smoother (or someone else could, with their own style). The best time to use “to be” in fiction is as a definer or direct metaphor, thus “you” = “trespasser”. Obviously, great writers break these rules all the time, but they do so intentionally (and nonfiction prose follows different rules).

Prose problems are pretty common in interactive fiction where people not only have to master the skill of writing but also that of game development, so I don’t mean to pick on Icepunk specifically. I think the concepts in the game and the technical work done to realize them is great work, and definitely serve as a jumping-off point for others to draw inspiration from.

IFComp 2014: The Entropy Cage

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here:


The Entropy Cage

By Stormrose

Choice-based / Twine

Play online:

Sub-sentient computer programs ‘subs’ coordinate our future society. You, the first cyber-psychiatrist, are drawn into the sub’s war for their next evolution.


I picked this game because it mentions a “simulated computer environment” while still being choice-based (which cuts down on the usability problems). As the blurb indicates, you act as a “cyber-psychiatrist” to get programming systems (“sub”-routines) to follow their orders. While the concept is appealing, the psychiatry aspect never actually manifests in a compelling way – instead, the game is short-circuited by the main plot device.

Once you gain access to the computer terminal, some familiarity with programming is useful so that you can read phrases like “sub.queryRequest()” without hesitation. Otherwise, it might take a little bit of time (as the game warns new players) to get a handle on the language and some of it may remain opaque anyway.

At your computer terminal, these “subs” come to you asking to be “punished” – an odd choice of heavily loaded, sexualized language (subs, punishment, and its role in BDSM culture) when the game doesn’t actually ever explore this avenue other than this word choice. Other options include “promote”, “freeze”, and “disconnect” when analyzing sub requests one by one.

These subs will give you reasons why they should be punished if you query them – in all the cases I saw, it involved multiple fatalities and millions of dollars of damage because the sub intentionally derailed a train, or changed traffic lights, or involved itself with similar electronic systems against protocol. This malevolence is a red herring – successfully distracting you so that when the real crisis arrives – subroutines cannibalizing each other in a war for resources – it takes you completely by surprise.

Several times, actions you take are short-circuited. You attempt to query a sub, only to find it disconnected and non-existent. You promote a sub only for it to be translated to “kill()”. Subs with invalid names (non-hexidecimal strings) start making requests. Others reference darker imagery:

7a6: I wish to avoid this war. I present proof of my innocence.
PROOF:Verified: 7a6 has not participated in actions against other subs.

You discover your actions don’t really protect any of them – subs are cannibalizing each other, overriding your commands in their search for limitless resources. You discover two separate factions at war, one with a religious fervor to find “True Random” by recruiting volunteers or, as it grows more sure of its goal, by forcing subs into slavery. It gathers resources for the below purpose:

The attempt to find the boundary between determinism and indeterminism by exhausting all deterministic possibility.

The endings are rather nihilistic. If you side with one sub, the computer systems maximize efficiency at the cost of human creativity: no more new literature, film, or other art produced as they waste resources. With the other side, the sub allocates all resources to finding True Random, leaving society to wither without itself life support systems. The title of the game – “The Entropy Cage” – describes this entrapment between two terrible ends in this quest for randomness, leaving you with but one statement:

Your existence is neither zero or one.

It’s a solid science fiction short story, and unlike many other linear stories turned into choice-based games “The Entropy Cage” certainly benefits from the interactive fiction medium. Over time, as previous options like “punish()” stop working on the subs, you are given more options to explore to troubleshoot the problem, in turn revealing more information. Interacting with the game via a computer in real life certainly helps ground the virtual computer console you interact with.

This review is a strange one – I find myself repeating the events of the game, rather than interpreting them. That’s because I feel the events were interesting enough on their own to stand up. There’s actually not a lot of depth, not much left unexplained, and not much to be interpreted on its own. This is what prevents it from rising to any kind of greatness: the interpretations are fed to you rather than left for the reader or player to discover.

IFComp 2014: The Urge

I am playing through and writing my thoughts on IFComp entries this month. You can find all the entries online here:


The Urge

By PaperBlurt

Choice-based / Twine

Play online:

Torture, torture little star | You must wonder where you are | Hoping that you’ll soon will die | As I melt your face with lye
When your pee mix with your sweat | And the floor with blood is wet | Then you’ll feel a real true fright | Torture, torture all long night

When the silver blade once rise | You will live without your eyes | Then you fade away from sight | I’m now your God and I will smite


Most people that know me know that I love horror of all kinds. I have no qualms about playing a game about torture or playing as a serial killer.

I’ve played some of PaperBlurt’s other games in the past (and they are credited as co-creators on “Zest”, the first game I reviewed). They also strike me as a bit odd, and not quite fulfilling their promise, but usually something interesting is happening narratively. With horror that’s usually my baseline requirement: is there’s something interesting going on? The answer in this game is… no, not really, unfortunately.

There’s a few instances where the author uses some interesting techniques with text. Descriptions of women tare filled up with violent text over time like “KILL” and “DISMEMBER”, breaking your concentration with these compulsive thoughts.

There’s only one real choice in the entire game. The rest feels more like clicking through a short story divided into vignettes and introspective thoughts. Unfortunately, as a short story, I didn’t think it was very good – at least, it didn’t add anything new to the “serial killer” genre. The game flops between violence and humor, drama and parody, not quite sure what tone it wants to take.

The story starts with you in a shed or container of some kind, your kill room with violent torture tools and a “guest” unconscious on the table. Initially this looks like the kind of game that will force the player to enact torture on a victim – a way to make players complicit in the deeds of the serial killer. But this is taken away from you: you observe some torture instruments and then the victim is promptly dead. The game spend more time talking about walking through the woods to dispose of the body than anything about the act of killing itself. You never feel complicit. You feel like a passive observer.

The narrative takes a turn as the killer meets a woman he is attracted to, but doesn’t feel a compulsion to kill. They date, they move in together, and then the killer feels the need to kill again. Like in the beginning of the game, there’s no real focus on the act of killing – it’s skipped. The storyline develops in an obvious direction with no surprises, even with some plot holes (you drive to your container in the woods after work and get home that night – even though it’s an 8 hour round trip?). The only thing that had the potential to set “The Urge” apart from other serial killer stories was its reference to some beast – “it” – that roamed the wood that fed on the body parts you left out for it. But that was never really explored fully – mentioned at the beginning and end of the game to sort of wrap it up nicely.

The game talks a bit about the ritualistic notions of killing and the compulsion to do so, but I don’t feel either are really explored well. Ultimately, I found it unsatisfying.

In celebration of spooky October, I’ll recommend some of my favorite films about serial killers:

  • Zodiac – detective film about the enigmatic clues behind the Zodiac Killer. Not excessively gory or violent.
  • The Chaser – a Korean thriller about a former cop chasing down a serial killer, and does some really unique things that I have never seen in this genre before.
  • I Saw The Devil – a gruesome Korean flick in which a detective enacts vengeance upon a serial killer outside the law. (Excessively violent).
  • Memories of Murder – a Korean film by the director of The Host & Snowpiercer (but in a very different style) based on a true story of a serial killer in a small Korean town that was never caught
  • Lady Vengeance – yes, another Korean film (they are so good) from the creator of Oldboy, as a very good revenge tale. Excessively violent).
  • American Psycho – an outrageous satire of upper class NYC yuppie lifestyle, plus murdering
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – I believe this is the most accurate and real film I’ve ever seen about a character who is a serial killer. It doesn’t make claims about good and evil, but rather lets the killer just exist on his own. As a film from the eighties, it’s aged really well.
  • Silence of the Lambs – if you haven’t seen this, you should. About a detective who uses the insights of a captured serial killer to help track down a new one.