Robin & Orchid is a parser-based game by Ryan Veeder and Emily Boegheim. You can download it here or play it online here (at least for now; I don’t know how long the comp website will keep hosting the games).
Now that the comp is over, I don’t have the same qualms about expressing an opinion outside of the review. I recommend this game pretty strongly to fans of parser-based IF, and especially to anyone who – like me – was in a church youth group in middle or high school.
A not-too-spoiler-y review is below the cut, and then (after some space) more spoileriffic discussion. I am shamelessly stealing this format from Em Short, though I make no pretense of my reviews being as strong as hers.
Robin and Orchid are high-school girls, spending the night in Orchid’s church to investigate rumors of a ghost for their school paper. Robin, the player character and newspaper photographer, is unfamiliar with the church, but her friend Casey is a member and has given her copious notes to get through the night. Since Orchid immediately splits off to search separately, these notes are crucial. Throughout the game, as the player explores the church, Robin can LOOK UP objects, rooms, and people to get more backstory. Casey’s notes have a story or memory for almost every object in the game, which a) means this was a truly impressive undertaking as a writing project alone and b) gives the player a deep look into the world of the characters. Even without the main action of the game, Casey’s notes were a story unto themselves. It occurs to me that the notes on their own are similar in structure to a number of Twine-based games I’ve played – not “interactive” in the “I can control what happens next” kind of way, but interactive in that the reader discovers information in a way that is partly controlled by the author (due to the layout of the church, Robin will encounter and, presumably, look up some objects before others) and partly by the reader. In my evolving contemplations of what “interactive fiction” is, I’ve been developing opinions about what kinds of experiences and stories work best in which medium. Casey’s stories by themselves could have made a fairly solid Twine piece, though I think they work even better embedded in the bigger mystery game.
The descriptions of the church were wonderfully evocative. They reminded me so strongly of my own childhood Presbyterian church, from the board of nametags in the narthex, to the kitchen full of “much the same kind of thing as any kitchen, only more so,” to the storage closets in the basement filled with scenery from old Christmas pageants, that I would barely be surprised to learn that either “Ryan” or “Emily” was in fact a pseudonym for one of the kids from my own old youth group. The mystery of the ghost, meanwhile, was lighthearted but just suspenseful enough to make me hesitate before venturing down dark hallways – a good balance. All in all, I found this to be a very enjoyable game, with particular strengths in character-building and exploration.
Some more spoiler-ful discussion below, including some (relatively minor) criticisms
My biggest suggestion to strengthen the game has to do with the mystery of the ghost. I started to figure out partway through the game that someone (and I had a strong suspicion who) was trying to fool me into believing in the ghost through stagecraft and trickery. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to have this realization, as the clues were so strong. However, there wasn’t any clear indication that Robin was figuring it out, even though I made her pick up evidence of the fakery and cart it around with her everywhere. It would have been satisfying to have been able to do something that would have indicated to the game, “Yep, I got it! Clever, aren’t I?” One way this might have been accomplished could have been by requiring Robin to photograph enough pieces of evidence to make an iron-clad case for the paper. As it was, I wasn’t wholly sure what role the photography was supposed to make in gameplay. Occasionally examining a photograph of an object revealed something different about that object than what Robin had noticed about it in real life, but often – even when the object had some second significance – the description of the photo was no more illuminating than the description of the object itself.
Another minor criticism: while the in-game walkthrough system was fine, the game’s response to the HINT command could be improved. It caused the cat to wander in, then lead me off somewhere difference. Once or twice, this turned out to be a genuinely helpful location that I hadn’t thought to go. But other times I knew where I had to be, and even what to do there, only I couldn’t figure out how to do it. In these cases, the cat wasn’t a help. Most puzzlingly, sometimes the cat simply led me to the boiler room and then vanished amongst the pipes, though (as far as I can tell) there wasn’t anything I was supposed to do in the boiler room.)
Last thoughts: The game left me with a few unanswered questions, both from Casey’s stories and from the main action. Why did the girl with the amp have to drop out of youth group? Is Patrick just awkward, or in some way a bit of a creep? What was the mirror at the end of the tunnel used for?
And finally: I am really, really bad at figuring out climbing-on-things-to-reach-other-things puzzles. Really bad. This was my main reasons for needing to consult the walkthrough.