Game Review: Sidetrack (2023, Andi C. Buchanan)

In Sidetrack, you are a teenager who walks the same route to school every day.  Every day, you walk past an abandoned subway station.  Today, though, you see that the station is suddenly open and you decide to explore.  From the first station, you can take the train to as many or as few locations as you want.  Each location has a different feel to it.  The first station that I visited featured people who were made of wood and I had to exchange my money for wooden coins.  Another station was full of friendly spiders while another had biting fish.  Exploring each station brings the chance of finding something that you can use to enhance the experience your experience at another station.  You can visit and re-visit all of the stations as much as you like but when you finally decide to return home, the experience is over.

Designed with Twine and featuring stations that were created by guest authors, Sidetrack is about as pure of an Interactive Fiction experience as you could hope to have.  It’s a story that lasts for as long as you want it to and that goes where you direct it to go.  Well-written and intriguing, this is not a game where you have to worry about getting stuck because you picked the wrong verb or you missed a step in solving an intricate puzzle.  This is a game that you experience like a surreal but unforgettable dream.  Take the journey and see how many stations you can explore.

Play Sidetrack.

Game Review: Amnesia (1986, Electronic Arts)

You wake up in a hotel room in New York City.  You have no idea how you got there.  You have no idea who you are.  And you have no clothes.

So starts Amnesia, the semi-legendary text adventure game from 1986.  Amnesia was Electronic Arts’s attempt to challenge Infocom’s domination of the text adventure genre.  To write the game, they brought in author Thomas M. Disch.  Disch came up with a twisty and complex story where each choice often led to unexpected tangents.  The game featured a detail recreation of Manhattan, one that you could experience only if you could figure out how to find some clothes and get out of the hotel without getting arrested.  Of course, even after finding something to wear, it’s probable the many players decided to go ahead and marry the mysterious woman who claimed to be the main character’s fiancée.  Those players found themselves suddenly whisked off to an Australian sheep farm, where they lived out their days happy but unsure of who they actually were.  For them, the game ended quickly but without many answers.  Others, however, braved the streets of a virtual Manhattan is search of their identity.

Who are you?  Throughout the game, there are clues but they’re not always easy to find.  There’s a large collection of eccentric and bizarre characters who can help you or hinder you.  You have to avoid the police who want to arrest you and the people who are trying to kill you.  Of course, even if you defeat those assassins, the game also features random encounters with people who will ask you for directions and who will shoot you if you give them the wrong answer.  This feature was actually something that EA added to the game to punish anyone who had borrowed the game disk from a friend.  The game originally came with code wheel that you could use to determine which streets intersected with each other.  If you bought the game, you would be able to give people the proper directions.  If you didn’t buy the game or, if you’re playing the game in 2023 at the Internet archive, you would end up making a random guess and hoping that it didn’t lead to you getting shot by a tourist.

(Fortunately, there’s an online version of the code wheel.)

Even if you die, the game doesn’t necessarily end.  You might find yourself waiting in Purgatory.  After a certain number of turns, Charon might approach and ask if you’ve figured out your name.  If you give him the right name, you can move on.  If you don’t know your name, Charon leaves with a promise that he’ll return in another thousand years.

Amnesia is a challenging game.  It’s also a frequently frustrating game.  Thomas M. Disch was an author and the game reads like a long and dense novel.  There are times when Disch seemed to forget that the point of Interactive Fiction is that the player is supposed to have complete control over their actions.  At the same time, Amnesia’s descriptions are so detailed and many of the events are so unexpected that this is a game that benefits from frequent replaying.  And the game itself is so difficult that when you actually manage to accomplish anything, whether it’s getting out of the hotel or finding a place to sleep or even giving someone the right directions, you feel as if you’re the greatest player alive.

Or at least you do until the next puzzle comes along.

Play Amnesia.

Game Review: Conflict (1990, Virgin Mastertronic International, Inc)

In 1997, after the Israeli Prime Minister is assassinated, you are appointed to take his place.  It is up to you to lead Israel and to keep it safe.  It won’t be easy because there are enemies all around.  Not only do you have to deal with America continually pressuring you to surrender the West Bank and not increase the size of your army but Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan all border you and could be either strong allies or potential threats.  It all depends on the decision that you make.

Conflict is a political strategy simulator where the goal is to be the last country standing.  The only way to ensure that Israel is safe is to make sure that the governments around it either collapse or surrender.  That does not necessarily mean that you should go to war with these countries.  Though that is an option, it’s sometimes easier to covertly support an internal rebellion or to wait for those countries to go to war with each other.  Along with the countries bordering you, you also have to deal with Libya, Iran, and Iraq, three countries that can be manipulated to go to war with the rivals on your border.  If you do not want to go to war with bigger and more populated countries, it is sometimes best to just wait for those counties to collapse on their own.  Another solution is to develop a nuclear arsenal and use it on your enemies but that will not only earn you the enmity of the United States but there’s also a chance that it could cause the end of the world.

What makes Conflict so challenging is that each game is randomized.  Sometimes, you’ll start the game with none of your neighbors acting aggressively towards you.  Sometimes, Syria and Egypt will both be aggressively pursuing their own nuclear programs and sometimes, they won’t.  If you start the game with both Syria and Egypt threatening to invade you at the same time, you might as well give up and start over because there’s no way that you’re going to survive.  Just as in real life, so much of succeeding in Conflict depends on getting a few lucky breaks.

Along with the role of chance, another thing that stands out about Conflict is what a pain of the ass the United States can be.  If you do anything to defend your country, the U.S. will condemn you and possibly even declare an arms embargo on you.  (Again, a lot of it has to do with chance.)  If you call out an air strike on the nuclear installations in Egypt or Syria, the U.S. will get upset despite the fact that you really don’t really have any other option.  Losing the race to be the first to deploy nuclear weapons in Conflict usually means losing the game.  After I played the game a few times, I realized it was pointless to worry about how the U.S. felt about anything.  Instead, I had to do whatever I had to do in order to survive.

Conflict is a challenging game.  There is a way to win by declaring war on everyone but you can also win by being a peaceful neighbor and never attacking anyone.  Of course, both of those approaches can also lead to you being led away to be hanged by your enemies.  Conflict can be frustratingly difficult but that just makes it all the more rewarding when you do win.

Play Conflict at the Internet Archive.

Dracula vs. LBJ: Who Would Win?

For my final President Elect simulation of this year’s horrorthon, I decided to see what would happen if, in 1964, Dracula had been the Republican nominee against LBJ.  I had already discovered that Dracula would have easily defeated both Frankenstein’s Monster and Jimmy Carter in a presidential election.  Would he be able to do the same with LBJ?

In the real world, LBJ easily defeated the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater.  LBJ benefitted from public sympathy for the Kennedy family and also from a brutally negative campaign that portrayed Goldwater as being a war monger.  Johnson won 61% of the popular vote and he carried 44 states (and DC).  Goldwater won only 38% of the popular vote and carried only 6 states (5 in the Deep South and his home state of Arizona).  At the time, Goldwater’s defeat was portrayed as being the end of the Republican Party.  Instead, Goldwater’s losing campaign set the foundations that would later lead to election of Ronald Reagan in the 80s.

How would Dracula have done against LBJ?  Would Dracula, with his superb speaking skills and his hypnotic magnetism, have been able to defeat LBJ despite the incumbent’s strengths?

According to President Elect, LBJ would have still won if Dracula had been the nominee but the election would have been much closer, as far as the popular vote was concerned.  During the simulation, Dracula was such a strong candidate that LBJ even debated him twice.  Dracula won both times but LBJ was still able to hold his own.  If LBJ had made a serious gaffe during the debate, the election would have turned out differently.  It was a risk but it was a risk that paid off for Johnson.

The first results of election night tells the story:

Though Johnson easily won the District of Columbia, the rest of the states were much closer.  Dracula did well in the South and in the west.  Johnson did well in the North and the Industrial Midwest.  It was Iowa that put him over the top.

In the end, Dracula carried 18 states while Johnson won the other 32 (and D.C.).

(In President Elect, the Republican states are colored blue while the Democratic states are red. It took me a while to get used to it too.)

Against Dracula, Johnson still scored an electoral landslide but the popular vote was much closer.

So, if you’re ever wondering which President could have defeated Dracula, the answer is Lyndon B. Johnson.

And Ronald Reagan.  But you already knew that.

Dracula vs. Jimmy Carter: Who Would Win?

Earlier this week, I used the President Elect simulator to discover who would win if Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Mummy ran against each other in the 2024 presidential election.  Dracula won easily.  The Monster carried D.C. and that’s it.

Then, I decided to see what would have happened in Frankenstein’s Monster had run against Richard Nixon in 1960.  Nixon won easily.  Even though the Monster received more votes against Nixon than he did against Dracula, he was still only able to carry two states in the Deep South, Georgia and Mississippi.

Today, I decided to see how Dracula would have done against Jimmy Carter in 1976.  I set up the simulation with the same economic and world conditions that Carter, Gerald Ford, and third party candidate Eugene McCarthy were debating in 1976.  The only difference is that I substituted Dracula for Gerald Ford.  No longer would Ford carry the stain of pardoning Nixon.  Now, it would be Dracula.  Again, I gave Dracula high score for his speaking ability, his personal magnetism, and his ability to stay cool under pressure.  I also made sure that Dracula’s campaign platform represented his authoritarian politics.

In the end, Dracula’s platform didn’t matter.  Watergate didn’t matter.  The economy didn’t matter.  Dracula wiped the floor with both Carter and McCarthy.  Carter challenged Dracula to one debate.  Dracula blew him out of the water.  In real life, Carter narrowly defeated Ford after Ford lost their debates.  In the simulation, Dracula dominated the election.

On election night, Carter got one piece of good news when he won the District of Columbia.

However, that would be all that Carter would win.  Dracula won the next state and never looked back.

Carter was strangely competitive in Rhode Island, only losing the state by a few thousand votes.  As for the rest of the states:

Sorry, Jimmy.  The people have spoken.

President Elect: Nixon vs Frankenstein’s Monster

Yesterday, I used the old President Elect simulator to determine who would win a presidential election between Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Mummy.  Dracula crushed both of his opponents, mostly because neither Frankenstein nor The Mummy could really speak.

Today, I decided to see if Frankenstein’s Monster would have had better luck if the Democrats had nominated him to run against Richard M. Nixon in 1960.  In the real world, John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon, despite the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower.  (Kennedy had some extra help in Illinois.)  Nixon had the experience and the depth of policy knowledge but Kennedy had the charisma that Nixon lacked.  After logging into President Elect, I imagined a situation in which the Democrats of 1960 turned not to Kennedy but to Frankenstein’s Monster.  Just as he had with Dracula, I imagined that Frankenstein would run on a largely non-partisan platform that put strong emphasis on fire prevention.  As well, I had to give Frankenstein low scores on his speaking ability and his ability to stay cool under pressure.  But he did get a high personal magnetism score because people have been interested in him for over 200 years.  Would that be enough to beat the similarly challenged Nixon?

No, it would not.

Just as with the campaign against Dracula, it was obvious who was going to win from the start.  Frankenstein’s Monster barely campaigned and, unlike Kennedy, he refused to debate Nixon.

On election night, the first result told the story.

The good news is that, unlike when he ran against Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster actually did manage carry a state.  In fact, he carried two.  He won both Mississippi and Georgia, receiving 51% of the vote in both.  Every other state, he lost to Nixon.

The final vote tally:

Managing to win 43% of the vote while being unable to speak or be around fire is actually pretty impressive.  But Frankenstein’s Monster still could not beat Richard Nixon.

Frankenstein vs. Dracula vs. The Mummy: Who Would Win?

If the next presidential election were held today and the major candidates were Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, who would win?

I know that’s a question that has been on everyone’s mind and, in order to find out, I went to the Internet Archive and ran the scenario through a game called President Elect.  President Elect was developed as an election simulator in the 80s and it is still considered to be one of the best and most accurate games of its type.  Over the years, President Elect has correctly predicted the results of almost every election since 1988.

After setting the game to duplicate both the fragile state of the American economy and the uncertain outlook of our current place in the world, I then selected my three nominees.  Frankenstein’s Monster ran as the Democratic candidate.  He had no platform, beyond more funds for fire prevention.  As a public speaker, I had to give him a low rating and I also had to admit that he wasn’t good at maintaining his cool under pressure.  However, I did give him high marks on the “personal magnetism” scale because people have been fascinated by the monster for over two hundred years.  Frankenstein’s Monster may seemed like the underdog but perhaps voters would be moved by his personal story and his refusal to take definite positions on the issues.

Running for the Republicans was Dracula.  As for as public speaking, personal magnetism, and staying calm under pressure, Dracula got the highest rating available.  But his platform was undeniably extreme, with absolutely no concern for human rights.  Dracula was the only candidate to be opposed to the agendas of the Religious Right, the National Organization for Women, and the NRA.  (The last thing that a vampire would want would be for everyone to have access to silver bullets.)  Would he be too extreme for the voters?

Finally, running as an independent was the Mummy.  The Mummy had roughly the same platform as Dracula but little of the personal magnetism.  In fact, the Mummy could not even speak.  But he was determined to get what he wanted and again, he scored high on the personal magnetism because he’s been in so many movies despite spending all of his time under wraps.

I allowed the game to simulate the 9 weeks between Labor Day and the election.  Not surprisingly, Frankenstein’s Monster refused to debate Dracula.  As a third party candidate, the Mummy struggled to keep up financially.  I was expecting a close election with a lot of fireworks but instead, it was clear from week one who was going to win.  Dracula led in the polls from the start and, within the first hour of election night, he had the 270 electoral votes necessary to claim the presidency.  He went on to win a lot more than just 270 though.

Here are the votes by state:

America went full Dracula, not only giving him 60% of the popular vote but also 535 electoral votes.  Frankenstein’s Monster won only the District of Columbia and, even then, he only received 67% of the vote in this Democratic stronghold.  After D.C., Frankenstein’s best states were Minnesota and Rhode Island, in which he took 47% of the vote.  The Mummy turned out not to be a factor at all, despite winning 5% of the vote in Florida.  Frankenstein’s Monster may have had the most compassionate platform but Dracula had the charisma.  His best states were Idaho and Utah, both of which he won with 71% of the vote.

See you at the inauguration!

Game Review: Europop Vampire (2021, Chris Chinchilla)

You’re a vampire so get out there and party!

That is pretty much the plot of this short Twine game.  You are given the option of deciding what type of vampire you are (Are you a Nosferatu or a Twilight or a Gothic Vampire?) and you’re also allowed to decide just how exactly you want to spend your evening.  Do you want to hit the clubs or would you rather spend your night singing karaoke?  It’s up to you.

This game feels like it may have been abandoned why it was still being developed but what there is of it is enjoyable.  The game at least has a sense of humor.  There’s even an ending where the game says that you’re obviously looking for something darker than this game is prepared to offer up.  Not much happens in this game but a few of the jokes did make me laugh.  After you’ve played as many overlong, overly serious Twine games as I have, it’s hard not to appreciate something as unpretentious as Europop Vampire.

Play Europop Vampire.

Horror Game Review: Power, MT (2017, Phil Strahl)

You were just a traveler, passing through Power, Montana, when your car broke down.  Temporarily stranded, you were thankful when a local farmer offered to let you stay in his guest room for the night.  But then something terrible descends upon Power and you find yourself running through the town, fearful for your life.

The objective of Power, MT is straight-forward.  Make your way through town and hopefully, find some sort of protection before you are captured by the strange, apparently supernatural storm that is pursuing you.  To be able to do this, though, you’re going to need the flashlight on your phone to see where you are going.  And, with each turn, that flashlight drains your battery and leaves you that much close to being plunged into a darkness from which there is no escape.  It’s a simple and relatable premise.  Who hasn’t hit the panic button while searching for a place to recharge their phone?  The game is well-written and there are a lot of places to explore, even if there’s not always a lot of time to reach them.  Power, MT captures the feeling of running for your life.  It’s a challenging game (so be prepared to die a few times while figure it out) but it’s also not impossible to win.

Play Power, MT

Game Review: The Twine Fishing Simulator (2022, maxine sophia wolff)

The Twine Fishing Simulator starts out like an old school fishing simulator.  At first, everything about it, from the font to the simple directions, reminded me of the type of clunky but addictive text games that I used to play back in the early 90s.  Back then, we didn’t need a lot of fancy graphics or even much descriptive text.  We just needed our imagination.

You are fishing.  You start at the Lake.  If you catch enough different types of fish, new locations will be opened.  Each new location gets bigger and there are new fish to catch at each place.  There are also various rewards that you can get after you catch certain fish.  There are NPCs who you can talk to.  You can ask them questions about fishing.  Some of them offer hints.  Some offer side quests.  Some ruminate on the nature of existence.

The further you get into the game, the stranger it gets.  This is not a typical fishing simulator.  It’s not just about catching the fish.  It’s about why you’re catching the fish and why you’re moving from one location to another.  It starts out as nostalgic fun and then gets increasingly surreal as the game progresses.  I can’t reveal too much about it without spoiling the game’s puzzles but it’s ultimately one gigantic mindscrew disguised as a fishing simulator, and an entertaining one at that.  Anyone can write a strange game but it takes talent and imagination to write a strange game that, like this one, is worth playing and even replaying.

It was only after I finished the game that I realized that I could have just stayed at the Lake and kept fishing.

Play The Twin Fishing Simulator.