Category Archives: Critical Review

IFComp 2014: With Those We Love Alive

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


With Those We Love Alive

By Porpentine (author), Brenda Neotenomie (composer)

Choice-based / Twine

Play online:

no dreams


Porpentine is, in my opinion, the most important Twine author out there. Her games are often used as examples of the medium used as a literary device, breaking previous conceptions about what a “game” should look like. Check out Crystal Warrior Ke$ha for one of my favorites in its outrageous, unapologetic surrealism. Her Twine work usually have some kind of social commentary, often about empowerment or disempowerment as that ties into class or gender oppression.  Her prose is some of the best I’ve ever see in a game – she describes things in short, poetic, but extremely powerful language.  There is a dreamlike quality in everything she makes.

For an example of her writing, I traveled to a dream distillery where,

Pale, shriveled humans sleep forever on the floor. Pipes run from their heads into iron barrels.

This batch has a pale chartreuse color. You take a sip.

A bouquet of drowning, a delicate flavor of hope, and an aftertaste of injustice.

This introduction should give you an idea of where this With Those We Love Alive fits. It’s surreal, dark, incredibly imaginative, with a pink gothic fantasy that leaves you feeling disturbed. It won’t appeal to those looking for mechanics and gameplay over narrative, but I highly recommend it if you have literary leanings and enjoy a sort of interactive poetry of dreamlike language. It is a short story about humanity, custom, dreams, and fitting into a hostile society. Even if you don’t dig into the underlying meaning in the narrative (which I’m not entirely convinced I have right), the dreamscape she creates is worth reading on its own.

Stylistically, it’s beautiful in its simplicity. The background’s radiant colors fades into dark at the bottom of the screen, and colors change over time with the feel of the game to reflect major events. The music is wonderful – dark, brooding, exciting, depressing. Make sure to listen to this game with audio. It’s meaty too. It took me longer than two hours, largely because I found myself pausing to think or to draw glyphs on my arm as instructed by the game.

photo (1)

I don’t often see games try to break the forth wall and make a player interact with things other than the video game interface (the board game, the computer, the game console, etc.).  In “With Those We Love Alive” the players are asked to draw various glyphs on their arm at specific points in the game, symbols for “burial” or “insight”, leaving the reader to their own interpretation. This pause in the game, where it even asks you to leave the room to draw, forces the player to reflect on the game and allow their emotions to guide their creativity. This is a really inspired gameplay mechanic that suits this sort of literary fantastical games extremely well.

The game treats choices as essentially irrelevant when it comes to branching narrative, but incredibly powerful when it comes to emotional impact. Normally I like Twines that embrace player choice and agency. Porpentine’s games usually don’t have much agency, but the narrative impact of your choices are huge and makes up for this. There are some choices between events where you can explore the city, but besides some randomized text (such as at the dream distillery) there’s no reason to travel around once the novelty wears off. Instead, most of the games events are triggered by choosing to sleep in your chambers.

The story in “With Those We Love Alive” is really good – I have my own interpretation, and I am not sure it’s entirely accurate. There are just a lot of layers of meaning within it that I could write about for ages.

Initially, the story seems to be about a worker or disciple serving an Empress – one with a carapace and that ascends from a lake with her larvae, that hunts humans for sport and births fleshy blobs of princess spores, whose hounds gnaw on the bones of heretics. This alone gives you fascinating glimpses into the world – anyone interested in world building should take a few lessons from Porpentine’s brief prose.

My interpretation of the game is that it’s about living in a hostile, feminine world. The Empress is always introduced with bright pink fuchsia backgrounds and a music change, a dark and powerful sound. Her gender and violence are both front and center in everything she does. You are not really part of this alien world – you used to be different, look different, and are estranged from your family. You regularly “reapply hormones” – described as glyphs (not unlike the ones you draw on your arm) and describe yourself as “a horrible creature of gender”. There’s more – especially in the last half of the game, where the fantasy starts to break down and reality sets in with the visit from an old friend.

Much of my interpretation of the game comes from a single line when the Empress decides to hunt humans for sport:

A custom that persists because people are scared that if they question the custom they will fall victim to the intense cruelty of the custom, which persists because they fail to question it.

You feel traped within this cycle. You must follow the customs of femininity – or be thrown to the dogs “gnawing on heretics bones”. You must participate in their mob violence, else become victim of it yourself. Another line seems to support the idea of the Empress as a more abstract symbol of gender, rather than a concrete thing:

You imagine yourself making more and more things for the empress of increasing intimacy, until you are making her bones themselves, and then the individual components of her soul.

Until she is finally replaced by that which came from your hand alone.

This is the ship of Theseus. Everything you do in service of the Empress – the jewelry and weapons you craft for her from exotic, dreamlike objects – goes to support her, until eventually the only reason she exists is because everyone has helped built her up. She is the sum of all of her parts. She is the embodiment of custom or tradition, which cannot exist unless many people buy into it and then, at some point, it becomes a force of its own upon others.

“With Those We Love Alive” has many layers of meaning, and I certainly didn’t touch on all of them – especially the topic of dreams, which has heavy emphasis throughout. Instead, I talked about just the one that resonated with me the most. I’m sure others will have their own impressions.

IFComp 2014: Zest

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

Zest: A Management Simulator

By Fear of Twine (Richard Goodness, lectronice, PaperBlurt)
Type: Choice-Based / Twine

Play online:

Hello young Limonista!

It’s the hottest week of the year, and ordinarily this would be a problem!

But you work at the most popular lemonadery in Sufferette City, and the citizens depend on you to keep cool!


“Zest” is a very short game and doesn’t immediately seem to offer much (outside it’s gorgeously polished aesthetics) but it develops a deeper flavor upon replay that I really appreciated. I completed five of the nine endings – I tried for the others, but I am not sure how to get them.

Stylistically it is gorgeous. The creators have paid a lot of attention to the look and feel of the game, and it shines. They completely modified Twine and exploited many of the interesting macros others have created (and, I think, created some of their own) to form some unique effects with text.

The font is great and bold and the blocky look makes it feel like the world is big and loud. Stomping comes to mind to describe it, but the all-caps look of it also produces a kind of sameness monotone throughout the game (which I get into a bit later). The environment changes with each location. Your home shows a lazy, gross looking human lying down on a couch with no other furniture. Your bathroom is a faucet that drips. The lemonade store you work at has a neon sign pulsing with light. The animation details don’t overwhelm or distract – they add something you rarely see in a Twine game, where authors tend to focus on the narrative and lack attention to these kinds of details. This is what I’d expect from a really polished Twine.

There’s these vignettes in the game – little conversations that happen before you – that are just wonderfully created. They consist of multiple lines of text that scroll or flash between different utterances (not a sentence, not a word, but a literal spoke piece of speech). Together they make up a half-formed rambling conversation that reflects an eavesdropping protagonist, or perhaps one that just can’t be bothered to give his full attention to the speaker. These vignettes are stories like a woman with a whiny kid, a patriotic veteran who can’t visit his son, and a drunk accosting you on the bus. Other vignettes are the protagonist’s comments – such as taking a shower and finding it cold. This moments appear to be random, so replaying the game reveals more of these little slices of life.

My only complaint with its aesthetics is that many times the words scroll too fast, including in places where the text is not about leaving impressions (as in those one-sided vignettes) but also in places where it’s telling you a story (such as during endings).

To reiterate: I absolutely adore the style and writing in these vignettes. There’s real skill and care here.

All of that is reason enough for those who are interested in Twine to go and play this game. I highly recommend it for that purpose. Aesthetics is something that I think a lot of Twine users skimp on, which is always a shame because they can enhance or contextualize your piece in ways that pure text cannot.

There are RPG-like stats on the left side of the interface that appear to have a function but, really, they don’t serve much use. I engaged with them initially and then ignored them. It’s an odd decision, to me, to have them so prominent on the UI when they are relatively minor actors except in a few endings. I interpreted it as a concern for your material wealth (and health of your body), but I’ll get into that later.

The content of this game, initially, turned me off. Reading about a drug-fueled haze of existence and the malaise of a man of questionable hygiene who works at a convenience store does absolutely nothing for me. I don’t think stoner stories are interesting by themselves, and my first impression was that there’s really not a lot of depth to the narrative. It’s definitely a game you need to replay in order to develop a sense of the overarching themes.

The game is not just about drugs. Religion plays a rather important role, hidden, but only just barely, beneath the veneer of your dependency on drugs and attempt to keep a steady, low stakes job. Your options to Shower, Zest, Exercise, and Pray all have equal weight (i.e. they appear at the same time and none are emphasized over others). The fact that Pray is even an option implies a character with religious habits or upbringing. After the work day, you can choose to hit up your dealer, or go to the hippie ‘tobacco products’ shop… or go to church. It’s almost as though it’s an arbitrary choice whether to continue the path of drugs or seek out religion. They aren’t necessarily pitted against each other as alternatives: the player can pursue both, they can get high in the morning and pray afterwards. The game tells you that you are or were Catholic, though it doesn’t say if you’ve lost your faith: it makes it entirely your decision what relationship the protagonist has to his religion.

Religion pervades the piece through various endings and random vignettes you stumble across, not just through choices like attend church or pray. You can overdose and be sent to the pearly gates of heaven – only to be turned away because “Your name isn’t in here”. You can get high with your friend Benny and he might ask you if you’ve met God, or you might tell him a story of a scorpion saved by a monk. A woman comes into the store you work at to evangelize with get-rich-through-God style worship. You can go to mass and become a preacher.

Drugs and religion have gone hand-in-hand in many cultures, but there’s no “Doors of Perception”, or psychedelic religious experience here as you’d expect when you mix the two. The game, instead, seems to focus on the mortal body versus the immortal soul. You play a protagonist wasting his life, with a structure that pits his physical attributes – height (as in a drug-induce “high”), grossness, and toxicity – and his material possessions – tobacco, bongs, money – against his mortal soul and the meaning of life. It’s not a coincidence that prayer lowers the negative effects of taking drugs (height, grossness, and toxicity).

There’s a story the protagonist or his friend (not sure which) tells the other. It’s a story of a monk who saves a scorpion from drowning. In turn, the scorpion stings the monk “for it was in its nature to do so.” Perhaps this focus on the empty, material world is just human, just “in its nature”, rather than seek out greater meaning in the world.

I may be reading too much into it. I may not be the best person to interpret it – neither religion nor drugs have had much of a role in my life. I enjoy musing on why the authors chose to incorporate religious narrative into Zest.

There is just one last thing I want to cover: pacing.

Most good stories AND games embrace some kind of pacing – you increase the stakes, increase the intensity, and then drop it every so often until you reach a climactic moment! The epilogue or resolution is where you finally let the player (or reader) cool down.


On the left is a normal pacing chart. On the right is how I felt about Zest.

Normally that right side of the chart is a poor experience for a player – or perhaps, considering the content, “user” is a better term. An audience expects highs and lows. Drugs imply highs – the manic excitement – and lows – from withdrawal and coming down from that high. There’s a few excitedly hyper moments in the game when you are taking drugs with your friend, but these are short and fizzle out so quickly that they didn’t really affect the overall sense of pacing in the game. Obviously, these moments are the handful of escapes – for protagonist and player – from the deadened, mundane, and monotonous life you lead 99% of the time.

In Zest, I don’t think the “flat” pacing curve is a problem. The protagonist’s friend even mentions that they are in “maintenance”, where they get just high enough to take the edge off but no so high that they are unable to function. The “flatness” of the game is an example of harmony between structure and narrative. This is something I push from a game design standpoint, where I say your mechanics and your narrative need to be aligned at a core level (and when they aren’t you get “ludonarrative dissonance”).

Zest itself is a great word. A person can say, “they have a zest for life!” to describe a kind of excitement or unbounded passion. You add the zest of a citrus fruit to many recipes, the sharp, intense, colorful flavor from the outside of the fruit. It’s a wonderful word to use as a euphemism for a drug – one that’s intense with the power of amplification. Some of that feels lost here in the game – this intensity never rises. There’s no big bang. I feel like it’s a game running on empty. It’s lost its zest.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s trying to say… the protagonist has lost their zest for life. They are in ‘maintenance’ mode – there’s no room for ‘zest’ there. Note the full name of the game “Zest: A Management Simulator.” Two concepts set in marked contrast to one another. Zest: excitement. Management Simulator: about as far from excitement as you can imagine. The latter half pretty much kills the first half.

As you can by how much I wrote, I liked this piece a lot. I started out not liking it much at all. The more I wrote, the more I enjoyed it. I don’t think it completely sold me – there’s some details I’d have done differently, and some mechanics (like my character stats on the sidebar) that I didn’t feel were really explored to their potential. But overall, I think it’s got a lot of interesting things happening beneath the surface, but it does require you to dig a bit.