Reiko's Ramblings and Writings

What I'm reading and writing about lately.

IFComp 2016 Review: Not Another Hero

Posted by Reiko on November 30, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Not Another Hero
Author: Cecelia Rosewood
Format: Web – Choicescript

I was a bit underwhelmed by this one. Maybe I’m just burned out on superhero stories. There was Cape last year, for instance, which seemed to actually have some commentary on whether superpowers were enough to make a difference.

This piece seems to be part of a larger context, since it offers details on a number of “anomalies” that don’t even show up in the story. And it does offer a few thoughtful choices, like what to think about a child anomaly that the government wants to relocate into a laboratory because she’s strong enough to be dangerous. But the story ends abruptly, with no resolution, and by then I was mostly skimming anyway.

There are hints of romantic possibilities within the team, and a minor reveal from one of them, and a few opportunities to chat with them. But ultimately I didn’t end up caring about any of the characters all that much. That’s unfortunate in a team-based story.

The story seemed to be in summary mode much of the time. We skip from the PC’s graduation, through training, and out into missions within a few pages. But mostly the missions were boring guard duty. It just wasn’t as interesting as it should have been given the existence of cool superpowers and powerful government equipment. The team often uses powered exosuits, and one time the PC can use a non-lethal stun net, but I didn’t notice much other special equipment. And not much really seemed to happen in the story. Each chapter covers some incident in the team’s history (initial training, some random mission, the mission to capture the young anomaly, more guard duty, a mission that went very wrong, and then the end, more or less). I didn’t get any sense of a narrative or character arc from all this, though.

There was an author’s note saying she wants to release a post-comp version with romance and character classes, which would admittedly add some depth. However, I’d concentrate more on making the core story and characters more interesting first and polishing the prose. Then add more content.

Time: 30 minutes
Scoring: base 7, -1 for typos and homonym misusages, -1 for boring missions
Score: 5

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IFComp 2016 Review: You are standing in a cave…

Posted by Reiko on November 29, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

You are standing in a cave…
Author: Caroline Berg
Format: Z-code

This is an old-school cave crawl romp with good prose and fairly good puzzles made completely obtuse by poor implementation and outright bugginess. Sadly, there was no walkthrough provided. I tried really hard to solve this one, and even checked some other reviews to see if I could get some help. A couple commenters said they were able to solve the thing and reach an ending, so it seems to be possible. One helpfully mentioned a forum post where the game was originally played out with the author responding directly to command suggestions, which helped me find a couple things I’d overlooked, but even that wasn’t enough because enough things were different.

I was stuck for awhile because I couldn’t find the right tool to get the sunstone out of the constellation room. I literally tried using almost everything in inventory on the other items and the gems at that point. Finally, the forum playthrough pointed me to the chisel, which I completely didn’t notice when I first entered the chasm room.

I could find no way of making a torch even though I had all the right ingredients: a stick of wood, moss, twine to tie them together, and matches to light them. I couldn’t get any syntax to give me anything other than “You would achieve nothing by this.” or “Are you sure you want to do that? You could get hurt.” I was able to get into the secret room without a torch, and I could light a match to see the celestial door long enough to get into the telescope room, so that wasn’t quite game-breaking.

I can’t do anything with the telescope, though. The forum playthrough suggests that a dial in the secret room need to be switched so that power goes to the telescope instead of the chasm pipes. Okay, that’s reasonable. But no matter how many times I switch the swirl or telescope dials, they don’t change their settings! I cannot get the telescope to activate, so I’m stuck.

I also couldn’t get the gear door open in the secret room. Another review said it wasn’t necessary to do that to win, but it’s still aggravating to have the right items and not be able to use them. I chewed the gum and tried to use it with the gear, but nothing worked.

I did some more poking around and found one more hint buried in another forum thread elsewhere. There’s a very specific and non-standard command that’s required in order to both make the torch and use the gear properly. Then I went back and tried the telescope and miraculously it was working. Apparently only the reporting of the dials was wrong, although I thought I had tried both settings already. I guess in my exhaustive examination and turning, I must have set them correctly somehow, although I couldn’t tell.

So, technically I finished the game, as I reached an ending. I’m still going to have to score this one as broken, though, given the bugginess and how much digging I had to do to find the exact right commands. Next time: beta testers! Several of them, preferably. I’d even volunteer. I like puzzly little things like this, but I like them even better when they work properly. I hope there’s a post-comp release.

Time: 1.5 hours
Scoring: base 4, +1 for shiny descriptions, -1 for broken puzzles
Score: 4

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IFComp 2016 Review: Steam and Sacrilege

Posted by Reiko on November 29, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Steam and Sacrilege
Author: Phil McGrail
Format: Glulx

The blurb makes this one sound pretty awesome, like a steampunk missing-person mystery with a female protagonist looking for her husband. But right at the beginning I found myself confused and rather underwhelmed. You start in the lobby of the Automatic Hotel as the husband, who has the default “x me” description. The wife, Theresa, is carrying jewelry but there’s “nothing special” about the jewelry. At one end there’s a desk with a clerk automaton, but the clerk isn’t examinable. The desk description has an “it’s” error. Argh.

There’s also a curiously-dark stairwell to the north. Naturally I tried to go exploring up the stairwell since there was a clear compass direction. I couldn’t go more than one step before the game said it was too dark, and anyway, I’m not going to carry my own bag up the stairs. Okay, that’s reasonable. Then I forgot which direction was back to the lobby, so I flailed a bit. For some reason I can’t go down again. Then I got this response to “out”:

“The caretaker stands only a few feet away.  If you try to stand now, there will be a confrontation for sure.  Maybe you should continue to act as a captive until he leaves the room.”

What? I have no idea what this means. I can’t see any caretaker. There’s been nothing about being a captive yet. I think this is a misplaced message from later in the game.

I finally notice there’s a bell on the desk and try to manipulate it in various ways, but only “ring bell” does anything. The clerk activates and asks me to put a paperweight on a window corresponding to the number of people in the party. I do this and then it asks me to put it on the window corresponding to the number of nights to stay. I wasn’t sure, so I started with one, but Teresa just mutters, “Cheapskate” and nothing else happens. I moved it to two, and Teresa says something longly about wanting to stay for a whole weekend. The clerk didn’t respond until I put it on three. Clearly this plot is railroaded and I have to find the “right” answer.

Then the clerk produces a pencil and asks me to sign another window. I try “sign name” and it just says “The mechanical man probably wants you to write your full name.” Well, okay, but I can’t find any way to do that. I try numerous commands like “sign full name” or “sign last name” but the only response is, “I didn’t understand that sentence.” Even “sign” by itself isn’t understood. This is “guess the verb” territory at its worst. The explicitly telegraphed phrase isn’t even recognized.

I finally turn to the walkthrough in exasperation. There are multiple files. One of them gives a cheat command that will skip the player past this introduction. It even says, “Bored with all the railroading?” Bored isn’t the right word, and it’s not just the railroading. I’m exasperated with the thin implementation and guess the phrase requirements. Aside from that, I can’t tell from the names which walkthrough file will help me with the intro. Once I open one, I see that there seem to be five endings, so each file details how to play through the game to get each of the endings.

Anyway, I found the intro help I needed. I’d seen that there was a business card in the wallet in inventory that gave the PC’s name. But the author wanted the player to look at that and then write the actual name. As if the PC wouldn’t know his own name. Come on, this isn’t an amnesia plot (for once). Finally I stumble through getting the mechanical bellhop to take the suitcase, and the intro is over.

Now we start chapter 1, with an entirely new character, Miriam. I’m a little curious about the hotel, but I just don’t know if I can push through an entire game with this much fiddliness.

Miriam has a travel mug of coffee. I can drink from it once and the room description shows it as “partly drained.” Then I try to drink from it again and it says, “There is no coffee left.” And then it’s described as “empty.” So that’s incongruous. The response to “out” is still the completely nonsensical thing about the caretaker. And there’s an inventory limit, and a bag that can be used to hold extra items, but no automatic shuffling of items into the bag when you’re trying to pick up something else when inventory is full. Later I also found several places where compass directions didn’t make any sense. There are a lot of little things like this. It’s just not a very pleasant experience.

I used the walkthrough to reach an ending, but even so it wasn’t a true ending because the game allowed me to keep playing and exploring the hotel. The description of the room where I reached the ending didn’t change to reflect the reality of what I’d done, either. At this point, I’m really not very interested in trying to find more endings. This game is giving me a headache. It’s very ambitious, but needs a lot more testing and polishing before it will be fun.

Time: 1 hour
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple endings, -1 for guess the verb issues, -1 for inconsistent compass directions, -1 for spelling/grammar errors (its/it’s, etc), -1 for awkward inventory handling
Score: 4

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IFComp 2016 Review: Slicker City

Posted by Reiko on November 28, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Slicker City
Author: Andrew Schultz
Format: Z-code

I couldn’t get into this one very well. I played the preceding game, Problems Compound, and thought it required a lot of authorial mind-reading to solve the zany puzzles. This one is very much in the same vein, down to the same pun pattern of reversing the words of phrases. I happened to have just read a Xanth book, so now the pun style really reminds me of Xanth, with random abstract phrases being made literal objects.

The puzzles are meaningless enough that the game has to be pretty explicit about what the next step is, because otherwise you’d never guess. I got a little stuck once the game opened up, since I didn’t connect a hint from one room to the solution in another room, but I checked the walkthrough and was then able to make more progress on my own. There’s also a lot of pointless content, where repeatedly looking at something will return a different related response, but none of the responses are very useful or even interesting.

The verbs list mentioned an “explain” command that could be used on some of the backwards phrases to explain their significance. That’s useful if you can’t parse some of the puns and such, but I tried it on some of the room names (which were usually also backwards puns) and only got a run-time error complaining about a missing column in the table of room names.

After you win the first time, the game offers a lot of extra content, including some “amusing” suggestions, a list of missed locations (one location offers three different items, only one of which can be used in each playthrough, and each one gives access to one particular location, so the other two are always missed), and a list of pun explanations. If I’d liked the game better, I might have been interested in replaying to explore this content, but it really wasn’t interesting enough for that. The author obviously put a lot of thought into it, but I guess it’s just not my thing.

Time: 30 min
Scoring: base 7, +1 for lots of optional responses, -1 for run-time error, -1 for mind-reading puzzles
Score: 6

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IFComp 2016 Review: Labyrinth of Loci

Posted by Reiko on November 28, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Labyrinth of Loci
Author: anbrewk
Format: Windows – Unity

Given an executable, I thought at first this would be another homebrew parser or something, but no, it’s a polished and rather extensive choice-based game made with Unity. The game opens with a few choices about the character’s origins, from which are derived three characteristics or skills that can help deal with certain situations. From there, it offers a series of choices between two doors, each of which leads to a different room or scenario. Many rooms are very dangerous. Some offer treasure or useful items. Many choices are simply arbitrary, without foreknowledge of the results. So this game feels very old-school, with a high degree of artificial difficulty.

The choice of format is interesting given that the game doesn’t appear to be doing anything very tricky. I think I could do nearly everything I saw by using Twine, including graphical links, background music, and choices controlled by certain qualities and limited inventory. But the Unity package is very polished.

I played a few times, dying to different hazards each time, and eventually started taking notes so that I could remember which rooms were more dangerous and which skills were useful where. I started finding connections between rooms, with an item retrieved from one room being useful in another. Finally I found an exit to the labyrinth, although that particular time I had been infected by the Sopp and so the result was still death in the end. I played through quite a few more times and eventually reached another ending where I had retrieved one magic ring for another, which ended up protecting me after I returned home. I’m sure there are more endings. The deadly and varied nature of the labyrinth combined with the limited skills made it very difficult to investigate leads systematically, as I might not even see a certain door during a given playthrough, and if I did, I might not have the right skill that time to survive it.

There’s a lot of content and lore in this piece, even if it’s all disjointed. I found over two dozen different rooms split into four stages of the labyrinth. A given room would always appear in the same stage, if at all. I think the first two stages each offered three choices of pairs drawn from sets of 7-8 rooms and the last two stages offered two choices of pairs drawn from sets of 5-6 rooms. So each playthrough could only pass through up to ten of the 25 or so rooms. One room contained a library with ten different books of lore. Several rooms contained NPCs that would carry on rather extensively branching conversations. A key from one room could be used in a few other rooms to unlock chests or the like. A sword from another room could be used to fight creatures in a few other places. But it’s the luck of the draw whether you find those things early enough to be useful, or at all.

It just feels so vast. You can’t see it all even in a dozen playthroughs because so much is blocked off by various skills. Many puzzles have multiple solutions, but some rooms can only be survived by having exactly the right skill, and many combinations of skills are impossible. Many rooms seem to have long-term effects, but it’s hard to know what those are since it’s tricky to survive the labyrinth at all, nevermind after finding a specific room. I played for the full two hours and I’m not sure I even saw all the rooms. I know there’s at least one room in the last stage that I never entered, since I only even made it to the last stage a handful of times.

The atmosphere of the piece is fantastic. The prose could use a bit of editing, as I saw some dangling modifiers and other grammatical glitches. But I hardly minded, as the descriptions are vivid and colorful, and each room and character has its own distinct feel. The background music also contributes to the eerie and lonely atmosphere. I would highly recommend playing through this one a few times, or a dozen, and getting lost in the labyrinth for awhile. But let it all sink in, first. It doesn’t start to form a picture without more of the content, unfortunately.

Time: 2 hours+
Scoring: base 7, +1 for atmosphere, +1 for multiple endings, -1 for arbitrary choices
Score: 8

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IFComp 2016 Reviews: Various Web Entries (part 3)

Posted by Reiko on November 27, 2016

These are mini reviews of games from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here. All of these games were produced in web-based systems.

The Little Lifeform That Could
Author: Fade Manley

It’s a cute conceit. Sort of like Spore in IF form, but much shorter and simpler. I played three times and didn’t really see any way to lose. One time I focused on scientific accomplishment; another time I focused on trade; and a third time I focused on war. There’s really not much depth to it, though. Each playthrough is pretty short. I didn’t see any list of accomplishments or other suggestions of possible things to do to keep me playing any longer, though. If there are other clever outcomes from appropriately maximizing a stat, I didn’t find them. There is a summary at the end of each section that gives some idea of how you’ve done, but again, any path seems to be viable and the statistics don’t seem to mean much.

Time: 30 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple endings, -1 for shortness, -1 for useless statistics
Score: 6

Snake’s Game
Author: Nahian Nasir

The text is descriptive, but feels strange and needs a lot of editing. The verb tenses keep slipping around. There are its/it’s and punctuation errors. I think the writer is not a native speaker. He also keeps using “think” instead of “thing” although that seems like a deliberately alien usage for the “snake” character.

The first time I played through, I got to the end in about ten minutes after only about two choices, neither of which seemed very significant. Then there was an author’s note at the end saying that the story was carefully written as a tree, that each choice reveals a slightly different protagonist, and that the full story is only revealed by the totality of all the choices. I was rather surprised by this because I felt like I’d barely chosen anything and it seemed like mostly a static story. I tried a different choice at the beginning and found that the story spiraled off in a different direction which offered several other choices. One path even led to a loop back to the beginning of the story.

There’s some truly disgusting body horror in some sections. Yes, there’s a warning in the blurb, and no I still don’t like it. I would still rate a game down for bad design even if the author mentioned it up front (there’s at least one game in this comp that does that) and I don’t have a problem doing the same thing for objectionable content.

Time: 20 minutes
Scoring: base 7, -1 for poor writing, -1 for body horror, -1 for shortness
Score: 4

Author: Taylor Johnson

Previously I just played Not Another Hero, where the PC is essentially a special-forces police operative trained to take down people with powers, anomalies. Riot focuses on a policeman as well, but it’s a much more personal story, with a plot arc and interesting characters with their own stories. The city could be any city. People have gone crazy and it’s nearly a battle between police forces and armed civilians. In the midst of the chaos, one police cadet has to struggle to follow orders and deal with an unexpected accident.

Time: 20 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for realistic motivations, -1 for shortness
Score: 7

The God Device
Author: Andy Joel

This one is a campy sci-fi story about an alien device and the goons who will do whatever it takes to retrieve it. Tanya must try to stay alive while she’s being hunted for the mysterious thing that fell into her lap. We don’t learn all that much about Tanya as a character, though. Her motivations are partly determined by the choices the player makes, but as she’s mostly concerned with survival, those choices aren’t very deep.

Each playthrough is relatively short. I played three or four times in order to see multiple endings, but even so, it didn’t take me very long to find the winning ending. The notes say there’s a “best” ending with a score of 11, but I didn’t feel compelled to keep looking for that one.

Time: 20 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple endings, -1 for shortness, -1 for shallow character
Score: 6

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IFComp 2016 Review: Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire 2

Posted by Reiko on November 27, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire – Chapter 2: Journey to Hell
Author: Marco Vallarino
Format: Z-code

This has been translated from Italian, like the other piece from this same author in the comp.

I haven’t played the first chapter (I assume there is one), but both the intro and the “x me” response helpfully contain an entire summary of what the player will need to do in this game, including a magic word to use when all other goals have been accomplished. The PC is an evil vampire, which is an immediate -1 because I don’t want to play as evil characters.

I played through most of the game with the help of the walkthrough, which I turned to when the game suddenly asked me what seemed to be a trivia question and didn’t let me leave without answering. Given how often I’d been encountering people or places from the previous game that needed explanation, I didn’t have any faith that I should have a reason to know the answer. In fact, there’s a nearby location that does provide the answer, but I hadn’t found it yet. The walkthrough also helped me realize I’d missed a crucial item early on, too.

Some of the puzzles are reasonably interesting, especially the uses of the various forms the vampire can become. Some are just disgusting and even offensive. Eventually I got to a puzzle that wanted me to kill a minister, at which point I quit. I don’t doubt the game is finishable, so I won’t score it down for my decision to quit rather than finishing, but I will dock it for the evil character and disgusting puzzles. Even with the same parser and prose quality, it might have scored 6-7 with different content, but I can’t score it higher than 5 as it is.

Time: 30 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple forms, -1 for poor translation, -1 for evil character, -1 for disgusting puzzles
Score: 5

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IFComp 2016 Review: Ariadne in Aeaea

Posted by Reiko on November 26, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Ariadne in Aeaea
Author: Victor Ojuel
Format: Glulx

I recognized the author’s name from last year and wondered whether this piece would be as strange as the previous one. Fortunately, no, this piece is a fun slice of life set in ancient Minoan civilization, in the character of Ariadne, a priestess-initiate who has to solve a little mystery in order to impress her aunt Circe, the high priestess.

The broad strokes of the relevant history have been researched and clearly presented, although the author admits that a network of priestess-spies isn’t at all supported by the historical record. Still, the historical record is rather thin for that time period, so it’s not completely out of the question, either. The specific island setting is itself fictional as well.

The character’s voice is very strong here, if rather too modern-sounding. The prose is colorful and descriptive. I would love to see this piece combed through by a good proofreader, though, as there are a lot of little language glitches, including extra punctuation, typos, and missing words. A bit of cleanup would make the prose really shine.

The puzzles are generally straightforward given sufficient examining and talking to everyone. For some reason, this game actually reminded me a little bit of Journeyman Project 3, during the Atlantis segments. Probably the Mediterranean culture, plus the way talking to someone new or showing the right object would trigger an entire conversation to further the plot. At any rate, I enjoyed this one.

Time: 45 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for amusing actions, +1 for strong character voice, -1 for lack of proofreading
Score: 8

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IFComp 2016 Review: Ventilator

Posted by Reiko on November 26, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Author: Peregrine Wade
Format: Glulx

It’s a hot day in Mexico, and the PC is stuck in a disgusting hotel room with an evil ventilator. As an aside, this seems like an odd use of the word “ventilator”. I think the intended device is an electric fan with spinning blades. While this does provide ventilation, a “ventilator” is usually the medical device that keeps someone’s lungs moving if they can’t breathe without assistance.

It’s a rather uneven piece, really. There are a number of arbitrary deaths, some signaled and some not. (For instance, entering the toilet is signaled by refusing to let you do it the first few times you try, while taking off the t-shirt results in an immediate death.)

There are at least two “successful” endings, one better than the other. I didn’t use the “think” command enough and ended up turning to the walkthrough after I was tired of getting trapped by the evil ventilator. The “real” ending tries to say that the whole ventilator scene was some kind of allegorical dream about the PC’s life. I guess it’s trying to be deep, but it seems like a bit of a cop-out.

The good part is that there are a lot of amusing and optional actions that have sensible responses. But it’s tricky getting all the details right: there are a few bugs left. For instance, at one point I’d thrown my bottle at the ventilator, which cut it to shreds. Then in the next scene, I had the bottle in inventory again.

Plus some of the required actions seem rather arbitrary. I get that “think” was supposed to provide light hints, but it wasn’t clear that it was almost a required part of the playthrough in terms of pacing. I think the intention was for the player to slow down and “think” any time it’s not clear what to do next, but that wasn’t really signaled. So I missed some cues here and there that I would normally expect to be placed in object descriptions and unsuccessful action text.

Time: 20 minutes
Scoring: base 7, +1 for amusing actions, -1 for shortness, -1 for arbitrary actions, -1 for bugs
Score: 5

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IFComp 2016 Review: The Mouse

Posted by Reiko on November 25, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

The Mouse
Author: Norbez
Format: Web

This piece feels like one of those “awareness” pieces that people keep writing to make the player feel like they’re playing as someone with a mental issue or something like that. In this case, the PC is being abused by her (?) roommate.

As an aside, I honestly wasn’t sure whether the PC was supposed to be a guy or a girl, but given that the roommate in a college dorm is a girl, Carrie, I’m going to assume the PC is a girl too. But really, those drawings…well, let’s just say they aren’t very flattering and leave it at that. And there’s an offhand remark about the PC knowing what’s it like to be given a name you don’t like, and “Evelyn” can in some groups be a guy’s name, so there’s some considerable ambiguity going on, maybe deliberately.

More than just the portrayal of the PC, I really didn’t like the drawings in general. I didn’t like the art style, and there were just too many small drawings scattered through the text to illustrate the action, which to me was just unnecessary. The point of IF is to read the text. Yes, many pieces use visuals to enhance the story, but to me these detracted rather than enhanced the story. Maybe a few at just the most critical points would have been better, but most descriptive pages had at least one and some had three or four.

At any rate, Evelyn has a refuge from her roommate in the form of a deaf older lady. But it takes a crisis point at a party, which may or may not include a considerable act of violence from Carrie, for her to even consider telling her friend. The player has the choice to confront or run from Carrie, and later the choice to tell or not to tell the friend. It’s far easier not to tell, especially since nobody has believed her in the past, and especially if there’s no visible damage. Carrie is far better known and nobody thinks she could be so cruel to Evelyn.

It’s a very short piece and entirely linear until Evelyn gets to the party, at which point she has a lot of choices, but many of them are only used to reinforce how standing up to Carrie is mostly futile or how afraid she is of telling anyone. The conversation with the friend plays out almost identically whether there’s physical damage or not, which seems strange except for the fact that emotional abuse is still abuse, but it’s hard to prove anything until and unless that abuse turns physical.

In short, it’s pretty realistic, but not very much fun to play.

Time: 25 min (2 playthroughs)
Scoring: base 7, +1 for music, -1 for typos, -1 for shortness, -1 for linearity
Score: 4

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