ParserComp is an interactive fiction minicomp/longform-game-jam run by Carolyn VanEseltine, focused on games with parser input. One of its features is that voting is done by category, with awards in Writing, Puzzles, Story, Technical, Theme and Overall, each scored on a 1-5 scale. The theme is ‘sunrise’.
I’m going to be reviewing the games accordingly, broken up by category. I wrote up how I’m going to be ranking the games over here.
First up is Delphina’s House (Alice Grove).
Story: This is a multiple-realities deal: the hero is a smallish child, distracting herself from an unwelcome move from a well-loved home with a game of make-believe. A cardboard box transports her to two different realities in addition to the mundane world of the house’s attic. This is a premise that I have a lot of immediate sympathy with – who hasn’t had an unwelcome move as a child? – though the game doesn’t develop it as far as I’d have liked.
The story inhabits a certain well-loved style, one marked out by Metamorphoses, Myst, The Dreamhold, The Moonlit Tower; lonely, ethereal, filigree-puzzlebox worlds. Even more than is the norm in that style, it is unconcerned with narrative about other people, or even really about Delphina. It’s not so much a story as a crystallised moment of escapism: it does not follow the ‘child with problem escapes to fantasyland, overcomes problem therein’ model. Delphina does not fight any monsters or construct any imaginary friends – at least, none with speaking parts.
So I think this is a 3: it has some small-yet-well-handled things in the background, but the through-plot is basically ‘follow treasure-map to treasure.’
Puzzles: The multiple-realities mode shapes most of the puzzles: a major mechanic is that carrying items with you from one world to another preserves their state, whereas leaving them as you jump will cause them to transform into different versions.
The cool thing is that the three major puzzles have alternate solutions in each realm. Individually, the puzzles are quite orthodox, albeit attractively presented; but having three versions of each puzzle means that it’s much less likely that you’ll get stuck or to be unsure what to work on next. So overall I had about the right kind of puzzle experience, pacing-wise – I got held up a few times and had to experiment a little, but I generally had things to work on.
The puzzles are well-integrated into the world, if only to the extent that the world is largely built around them. I think this is a 4.
Writing: This has some good (albeit brief) observation of childhood perspectives and concerns, some strong imagery and naming. At times the delivery is a little cumbersome: a lot of the time it’s trying to evoke strange and unfamiliar locations, and I’d have to read through the room descriptions a couple of times before I really got a mental image of the place.
You stand inside a cave-like formation of sandstone, a juxtaposition of rugged and smooth, solid and open, shadow and light. Irregular apertures in the ceiling have been fitted with panes of colored glass, so that the sunlight shining in from above creates jewel-colored pools of light on the stone floor. A breeze comes in through window-like holes in the walls, ringing metallic bells and chimes that have been hung among the rocks. From a small fissure in the floor you can hear the sound of rushing water. To the south is the cave entrance, and to the north is a chamber within the cave.
On the cave floor you can see some harp chimes, as well as five tiny bells.
That’s fine, if a little stiff for the effect it’s going for; ‘irregular apertures’ rather than ‘rough gaps’, ‘cave-like formation’ rather than ‘cave’.
I think this is a strong 3 – it does pretty much what is asked of it, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Technical: The three-realm design makes this a fairly big job, even though it’s doing nothing that is terribly challenging or unorthodox conceptually-speaking. (Indeed, you can almost see the tracks of the game’s scope being limited: ‘family home transformed by fantasy! Eight rooms, five worlds – oh, shit that’s a lot of work. *snip* Just the attic. Three by three.’ Here is wisdom.)
There are some minor missing sections of text, some of them in crucial places; for instance, the window-seat is no longer described in the home realm once the cat is gone, so you have to intuit its presence from memory. A handful of things behave oddly in certain spots: the drawings appear as separate items when the scrap of paper is on the mat. There are duplicate items that are handled rather oddly at times (if you put one marble into the fountain, it tries to put all of that kind of marble in.) None of this is fatal.
On the merits this is probably a 4; the alternate modes of puzzle-solving class this as ambitious, even if none of the individual elements are particularly radical, and most of it works pretty well. There’s more polish needed – I hope this gets a postcomp release – but it’s just polish.
Theme: One of the puzzle solutions seems to involve moving a planet around in order to – I’m guessing – un-eclipse the sun and thus make a flower bloom. This is a neat little image, but it’s restricted to one solution of one puzzle, and is (evidently) easy to miss. 3.
Overall: There were parts here that could have fitted together more smoothly, and I would have liked something that delved a bit more into Delphina’s character – but overall, this is a solid piece of work. If it’s a first-time attempt it’s a very promising one. 4.