Within a circle of water and sand is a choice-based game by Romain.
This a Polynesian fantasy, a story about a people who use outrigger canoes to cross vast tropical oceans and have names with (C)V(V) phonology. The protagonist is from one pseudo-Polynesian culture and is encountering another, unfamiliar one; cultural exploration isn’t really a major concern of the work, though, and exists only to support the action-horror plot. It doesn’t pull anything egregiously awful around depicting Polynesians, but it’s a fairly superficial treatment, in much the same way that D&D-default fantasy doesn’t usually try to say or reveal much about medieval Europe.
I didn’t quite twig what this was going for until someone used the word ‘gamebook’ of it, and that’s about where you should set your expectations: it plays and reads very much like a particularly extended version of a vignette in a Fighting Fantasy book, albeit with less visible stat-tracking. It’s essentially a young adult adventure, primarily concerned with building exciting action sequences with a touch of horror. It’s not shy about killing you a lot. Often, when it kills you, it doesn’t make it entirely clear why; sometimes you get killed in service of the main plot, but sometimes just to remind you that the world is dangerous. (Some spoilers follow).
It does not start strongly. You’re immediately presented with a wall of text, and the prose is on the stiff side:
You paddle steadily, not thinking or dreaming about anything, focused only on the purely physical sensations generated by the work of your muscles, the moist air filling your nostrils and the burning touch of the sun on your naked back. Your small outrigger canoe creates short-lived, insignificant trails on the surface of the immense ocean, barely disturbing its peaceful waves.
So, for instance, the purely physical sensations generated by the work of your muscles is a dry, clinical phrase, the way you’d describe it in academic writing. Overspecification has a way of draining the personality out of writing: when you use three adjectives and an extra clause to get an idea across, you tend to kill it in the process. It’s generally better to include a single detail, or a single adjective, and make it just the right one, than it is to throw in everything you can think of and labour the point. (I think that the author is a second-language speaker, and if so then they’re impressively fluent.)
The horror set-up, when it transpires, is in essence a very Fighting Fantasy setup: it’s a siren story, an attractive woman who lures the hero and turns out to be a monster. It is, to its credit, not a particularly bad version of the trope: Raiahui mostly isn’t described as actively seductive, the protagonist is also female and any attraction is ambiguous. Equally, though, it’s not really doing anything with the trope; it’s just iterating it.
The prose gets better as it gets briefer, particularly around the action scenes, where it mostly describes immediate situations and gets out of the way. It has some moments which work as horror. It has high-quality illustrations that do a good job of supporting the text. As a piece of fiction, though, it’s quite modest in its ambitions. This is, I think, a 5: it is quite good at the thing it sets out to do, but it’s not trying to do anything very interesting.
(All of this comes with a fairly major caveat: I got frustrated with the endgame and didn’t finish; the first time I played it, I felt I had almost succeeded, and then I never did quite as well despite (I thought) retracing my steps. I’m not sure if there’s a random thing going on behind the scenes, or if there’s a bug to do with restarting from the opening of the endgame, but I couldn’t figure it out.)
(Disclaimer: I am married to the lead organiser of IF Comp, and I’m on the IFTF’s Comp advisory committee. For a breakdown of what my scores mean, see this post.)