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More 2017 IGF nominees

More assorted comments on games!

Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.

(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)

Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.

In this post:

  • Rusty Lake: Roots
  • Able Black
  • Neptune Flux
  • She Who Fights Monsters
  • Islands: Non-Places
  • Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
  • Mu Cartographer
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone

Rusty Lake: Roots

You explore a creepy family's genealogy in their creepy house, down through the generations. I enjoyed this series back when it was Flash room-escape games. ("Cube Escape" was the original series title.) The author has kept the same puzzle style, but revamped the formula for mobile by wrapping up a bunch of escape "chapters" as one game.

I still enjoy them. The author is good at the creepy-surreal tone, and the puzzles have enough variety that they don't feel repetitive. There's a postgame puzzle sequence -- not quite what you'd call a metapuzzle, but it gives a really nice "ooh more to explore" feeling to the experience.

The one caveat is that the creepy sometimes degenerates into sophomoric nudge-wink innuendo. To be fair, the series always had a tendency towards cheap body-horror shock -- chopped-off fingers and popped-out eyes. Now that's been extended to include childbirth and wanking jokes. Is that worse? I roll my eyes more, definitely.

Able Black

I always love a mystery-interface interactive story, and I enjoyed this one. The visual design was striking and the story was pretty good. It's the "AI humanity test" story -- a SF trope which I admit is getting seriously overused in the past couple of years of gaming -- but it's well done.

The weak point were the puzzles, which were weak and unthematic. They did not feel like assessments that the android protagonist would undergo; neither did they feel like allegorical challenges within the theme of developing emotion and empathy. They didn't build on each other in an interesting explorable way, or with a metapuzzle. They were just a bunch of randomly-selected riddles thrown in for pacing. Pacing is important, but this is not the right way to go about it.

On the other hand, the game redeems itself somewhat in the "postgame" (whatever you call the puzzles after the five main chapters). I only got a little way into these, but they were integrated with the story and seemed to be interestingly explorable. Although, on the other hand yet again, the dexterity challenge was more of a nuisance than was warranted.

Neptune Flux

You operate an undersea waldo, collecting resources to preserve humanity after some kind of civilization-destroying event.

This is a puzzle game, but it's more of a homebrew action-adventure than a simple Myst clone. Oh, I suppose action-adventure is the wrong term -- no fighting, no jumping -- but you have a space to roam in and a couple of systematic tasks to occupy your time in between completing the main story beats.

It sounds like padding when I put it like that, but in fact those tasks pace out the game pretty nicely. It's still a short story, no question. But it's a short story that lets you poke around at your own pace; you can decide whether to rush to the next objective or scour the sea floor for a while.

(The traditional first-person adventure game would handle that pacing by flooding you with visuals: detail, detail, detail. And, you know, I'm a sucker for that. But there are other approaches, and this one is perfectly valid.)

All that said: the story does not work particularly well. It's trying to hand you a lot of concepts -- a post-catastrophe world, your job, your mother, AI, failed space colonies, alien artifacts, shipwrecks from various periods of history. But none of these really have a chance to settle in or feel real. I suppose this is where more visual detail would have helped! Or more game mechanics, or more characters... more engaging voice actors... more of anything to anchor the story. Lacking those, the story beats fail to connect up or have impact.

I feel like the designers tried to take a moderate approach -- just enough of everything -- but the total falls short.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Neptune Flux.)

She Who Fights Monsters

Last year I had trouble evaluating Undertale because Final Fantasy just isn't a big part of my gaming history. I recognize the tropes, but the way that the game riffs on them largely go over my head. Also, it's enormous so I never saw the thing as a whole.

SWFM is a simpler and shorter game with the same approach. Which is good, on the one hand, because I finished it and I pretty well understand what it's doing with its JRPG riffs. But, by the same token, it's less ambitious.

The topic is child abuse, and the game tackles it by means of traditional JRPG gameplay. That's interesting. And the story is clear and honestly offered. But the game doesn't do a whole lot with it beyond the basic concept of "let's present an emotional contrast using JRPG tropes". (Contrast, that is, between Jenny's fantasy life in games and her wounded reality.)

Perhaps I just wanted more story arc for Jenny. Her path in the story is essentially reactive and static. The new-game-plus options are trying to open this up, I think, but they feel awkwardly tacked on. The player is asked to re-experience (much of) the game, but in a distanced lens-of-memory way. The repetition mutes the impact. Or, I should say, the frame is inside out: I want the story to begin with mature Jenny reflecting on her history, and then ramp upwards to the raw impact of her early life. That's the "traditional" way you'd tell this story. But then of course the "final choice" of how you live your life would come at the beginning of the game, which is weird. I don't know! It's a hard problem.

Islands: Non-Places

That was a thing. It was just my kind of thing. 11/10 best puppy.

I'm not sure what else I have to say about this! It's a series of wordless images -- snippets of the urban landscape -- which you are invited to provoke into some kind of reaction. When you succeed, you move on to the next one. It's not a storybook; it's not a story at all; but it's involving and entirely charming.

I am going to tie this back to the genre of nonsense children's art: Graeme Base, David Wiesner, Shaun Tan. Nonsense which embodies a wordless looking-glass-logic. That's what this is. Not entirely new in videogames (anybody remember Haruhiko Shono?) but we can certainly use more of it.

Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation

This is a promo for an episodic game. I saw the Kickstarter go by but I didn't investigate it at the time. Now I see why people are talking about it. It's a smart take on the "text adventure" idea.

You wake up in a dark place with only a computer terminal to connect you to the outside world. You have to steer your friends through laboratory/complex/base by hacking on the computers that they connect you to.

If I put on my IF theorist hat, I would say that it's not equivalent to a full-on parser-based IF game. This is not a complaint; Code 7 goes off on its own thread, exploring the idea of a computer CLI rather than an object-based world model. That is entirely appropriate for the story it wants to tell. And it finds appropriate explorable mechanics within the CLI concept: the computers have a consistent (but expandable) set of commands, and the database search is a uniformly-available choice which the player can go back at will. There are also hacking scenes (which use a virtual map as a chase/puzzle environment), and scenes where the characters are chased by robots (same idea, but on a real-world map).

Altogether, a great pile of gameplay. Very polished presentation, too. My only complaint is that the real-time chase segments were a bit rough. The final hacking challenge took me a lot of tries -- enough that it wound up feeling tedious, rather than thrilling.

Now, the story is very old hat indeed -- a pile of sci-fi cliches. (With lanterns hung on them.) But the design is interesting, and the authors have the opportunity to take the story to more interesting places in future episodes.

Mu Cartographer

Excellent and indescribable!

I realize Mu Cartographer is pretty much aimed at my hot buttons: it's the love child of an abstract fiddly-toy and an explorable puzzle box. With bits of narrative about a psychogeographical landscape. I won't go so far as to say it's a story, but there's enough narrative text to provide a sense of place. Without that, it really would be an entirely abstract puzzle.

(Okay, there are snapshots of famous real-world landmarks. But those wouldn't sell sense-of-place on their own.)

My design quibble is that the various tasks aren't well balanced. There are three general categories of Things To Do (after "understand what to do".) One is pure grind (unless I missed a clue?) The second is easy (you can go straight to the solution); the third is hard (requires experimentation but you can tell when you're close). So you go back and forth between slog and non-slog, which makes the game pacing uneven. I finished it, but I felt that I'd spent too long on the job -- that is, too much blind-hunting time. Not the fun kind.

But this is a quibble. I enjoyed the heck out of this and would play six more just like it. ("Just like it" in the sense of each being completely different and unique, of course.)


A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre. This is a beautiful example of that genre. The artwork takes a spare, minimal style and lifts it to breathtaking levels. Backgrounds, animation, lighting -- gorgeous.

The platforming mechanics are familiar terrain, but well-executed. You start with running and jumping, and move on to several other mechanics. These are (mostly) well-introduced and then mixed up in (mostly) reasonable variations; there's plenty of variety to keep your interest. Variety, heck -- the game physics achieves some brain-twisting weirdness.

The strength of this game is visual (of course) and... I don't want to say "world-building". The pieces do not fit together to build a world. But each piece is, individually, razor-sharp -- a lucid shape of game mechanics, scenery, and visual tone which conveys a situation.

The weakness of this game is that sometimes you just have no idea what it's trying to get you to do. You can screw around until you figure it out. I did. But you might die six times in a row while not learning anything. It's just a little too eager, sometimes, in introducing a new mechanic that's hidden in the scenery. Or maybe the scenery is a bit too distractingly artistic.

(They usually add enough blinky lights to clue you in, but not always.)

Inside is getting a lot of chatter as a superlative narrative game. It is a superlative game. But not narrative. Sorry! A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. This has a starting point and a stopping point. That's not narrative.

As I said, the pieces don't fit together. Wordless platformers develop character, if they ever do, by giving you short-term goals which add up to game-spanning achievements. This game has the short-term goals, but they don't add up to anything. "You kept running." Not running to anything, or from anything. The threat in any given scene is clear, but you know no more at the end than you did at the beginning. I'll grant a thematic consistency -- the game is about control, and maybe that speaks to the platformer genre. But theme is not enough.

I loved Inside but it did not speak to me. It has a deep willingness to be nastily perverse, to bother the player. I admire that, and I've written works in that mode... but it's not the same as narrative.

Burly Men at Sea

Three burly sailors go on an odyssey. Then, if you like, they do it again!

It is undeniably adorable. The interaction is playful and distinctive -- more so when I got the iPad version. (Mouse control just doesn't suit the thing.) The writing is simple but sharp; I was immediately able to hear the characters' voices.

The visual design is great. The soundtrack is great (and makes me laugh). There's a nifty gimmick where you can buy any run-through as a printed storybook.

I feel like the game falls short of greatness, however. It asks for repeated play-throughs, but it doesn't particularly reward them. Scenes have first-time and subsequent-times variations, but no more than that. (That I saw.) They don't build on each other as you discover more of the map.

If the third run-through added as much as the second -- and so on, to some higher purpose -- this would have been one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it is a delightful toy that runs down too soon.

A Normal Lost Phone

  • (Accidental Queens / Rafael Martínez Jausoro, Estelle Charrié)
  • IGF entry page

A database game presented as the cell phone of a teenager in small-town America. As you explore the photos, email, text messages, and so forth, you uncover layers of Sam's life and how the phone came to be lost.

I expected this to be a fairly static environment. But you discover passwords and so on as you play, each of which unlocks a new section of the game. There aren't many of these; the story could be described as four gated "chapters" plus an epilogue. But then, the game is quite short overall, so it's not out of balance. The "puzzle" moments are all plausibly different, which wouldn't be possible in a longer game of this sort.

The designers do a good job of packing high school life into the non-linear environment of a phone. Exploration is gated by passwords, as I said -- but even within those chapters, you necessarily encounter the story piecewise. Messages and email are grouped by person, so you can't just browse Sam's entire life chronologically. This gives a nice putting-the-pieces-together feel even above the puzzle structure.

I won't be spoiling much if I say that the narrative turns into a coming-out story. The later sections involve a dating app and a support web forum. Again, these manage to convey a lot of information -- perhaps to the point of didacticism, but then I'm not close to the topic. If you are younger or these issues are personal to you, I think you'll appreciate the depth of detail.

The result is sweet and doesn't outstay its welcome. My only quibble is that the "American" setting is shaky -- not so much the character voices, which seem fine, but in random details like European date formatting and implausible town names.

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2017 IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!

The narrative nominees:

  • Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • One Night Stand

In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)

Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!

This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!

Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.

In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.

(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)


  • (Ocelot Society / Leonard Carpentier, Emmanuel Corno, Sergey Mohov)
  • IGF entry page

An adventure game in which you explore an abandoned starship. Your primary means of interaction is by talking to the shipboard AI. You do this by typing at the computer terminals that you find. Which is to say: this is a parser-based text adventure. I am very pleased with it, and not just for that reason. (Although a parser game always makes me happy.)

To be clear, this is not a traditional Zork-style IF text adventure (where you type commands from a conventional-but-extendable verb set). Nor is it a pure conversation game, which tries to simulate talking to a person. It's a hybrid. You can talk about any topic -- you're talking to an artificial person, after all. But you're trying to do things on the starship, and that means asking the AI to do them for you. You ask it to open doors, for example. But you have to stretch the command boundaries as you explore... so you get the conventional-but-extendable business after all.

The game takes its core mechanics -- looking at things, and then typing terminal commands -- with absolute conviction. Everything you do fits into that model, with a satisfying range of discoverable variation. If the UI had wavered and let you open a box or pull a lever with your hands, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

Free conversation input is of course a heck of a mechanic to wrestle with. Using it for a goal-oriented puzzle game is worse. The IF scene regards free dialogue as maybe usable for goalless character exploration; anything beyond that tends to bring up awful memories of Starship Titanic (1998, billed as a giant technological leap in NPC conversation systems; wasn't.)

This game, as far as I can tell, does not try to be a giant technological leap. (Perhaps the authors will tell me I am wrong, but...) It uses a standard approach: lots of keywords, a bit of pattern matching. I frequently caught the AI misparsing my input because it saw a keyword and ran away with it.

But it works, because the designers have put in reams and reams of effort. Not just on random topics (although there's plenty of that), but on contextual topics to keep the player moving forward. If you don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you can blather haplessly at the AI and it will put you back on the right track. It may be subtle or off-handed; it may just mention a topic that you missed. But it works.

(At least, it worked for me!)

The other nice bit are the broad hints that the AI cares about your phrasing. You can treat the AI as a topic index: just throw verbs and keywords at it. (That's what I did in Starship Titanic.) But it feels worthwhile to type complete sentences and say "please" and "thanks". Not because it gets better results -- but because the game politely asks you to.

Anyway. It's not a perfect game. The story, as SF, is rather thin. Plus I missed a lot of what the story was trying to convey, because I wasn't moved to trawl the AI about random background topics. And I got to a non-ideal ending because I wasn't sure what a particular command would do at the end. (It went boom. Should that have been clear in advance?) But it was a satisfying experience anyhow!

Recommended, for conveying its story entirely through its chosen mechanisms.


Oh, the arguments over this one. It's a medium-short narrative work which is wordless and uses strictly presentational interactivity. A daring combination!

(In the IF Competition, we have a special Golden Banana award for the game with the widest spread of high-vs-low votes. Virginia was definitely the IGF's Golden Banana candidate this year.)

There are lots of wordless narrative games, but they generally give you plenty of agency at the beat-by-beat scale -- you have puzzles or at least exploration goals to tangle with. So you have a sense of expressivity through the protagonist's actions; you are achieving things. Virginia skips right past all of that. You have moment-by-moment agency (walking around, looking at things) but the narrative proceeds without giving you much more than a "next scene" interaction. Sometimes, not even that. You can collect flowers but that's entirely on your own account.

And then, on top of that, it's a character story with no dialogue.

You have to be willing to go with the game on this, and I won't blame you if you don't. But I think it works really well. Virginia adapts the visual language of cinematography better than any other game I can think of, simply because it's entirely that language -- the cinematography isn't used as mortar between puzzles, dialogue scenes, or chunks of browsable text. Nor does the cinematography clash with the interactivity. A thematic transition will occur when you see an object; your attention is in the right place for it. Abbreviated scenes give you just enough time to look around. That sort of thing.

The story concerns a (black, female) FBI agent, circa 1992. You are sent with a partner to a small town in Virginia. (Hardcore X-Files and Twin Peaks fans will have to cover those narrative connections.) The mystery is a missing person, but (of course?) this is not a detective puzzle game.

So what is it? The narrative is, necessarily, a bit ambiguous. Not entirely -- some of the plot is meant to be clear, and is. But there's quite a bit of dream sequence, hallucination, flashback, and allegory; the designers are happy to let them blur into each other around the edges. With no dialogue or voice-over, you're left to put the pieces together, will you or no.

Yes, there are seams, and yes it leans on hallucinatory surreality more than it probably should. (Again, Twin Peaks fans may disagree.) But it's energetic, it's sincere, and it conveys a lot of emotion in its stylized way. I liked it.


Another database game! (I like this game format -- have since 1986.) But a pointed one. As the title implies, the database is a universal surveillance system run by the government. (Of a fictional Ruritanian nation, but that's thin drapery.) You are invited to be a volunteer investigator for the system, looking into a political bombing in "Freedom Plaza". The gimmick is that you are the human conscience of the system; it sees nothing until you decide to upload it. But, and on the flip side, your uploads are entirely contextless; you can upload one line of a conversation to makes someone look guilty or innocent. Truth is what you decide.

This game made me uncomfortable, and not for the reasons you might expect. It's last year's debate, see. An argument that a universal surveillance state is bad (or even good) based on an exploration of the effects? That's rational politics. We're past that now. (Relevant US and UK headlines omitted in despair.)

But I shoved the real world into a corner of my head... temporarily... and played through.

On its own terms, this is one smart construction of a game.

The gameplay comes in two basic phases: you search everything you have access to, then decide what to upload. (Uploading gives you access to more stuff, as the System expands its search to more targets. I mean people.) Both phases have just enough depth to be interesting without (much) risk of leaving the player stranded.

Search involves going through the game's simulated web pages, and (later) phone-taps and computer root-kits. You have to do a bit of clicking around to find everything; the UI cues you when a page needs more searching, so you won't get stuck. On each page, potential key phrases are highlighted. This is the decision phase; you can upload a chunk or mark it irrelevant. Sometimes two chunks contradict, and then you can only upload one of them. Again, the UI marks pages where you have work to do. The story advances when you've uploaded enough data for your government handler to arrest somebody or otherwise take action.

Thus, a potentially bewildering situation is constrained to a tight and reasonably clear model. It supports some nice variation -- technical hitches, a couple of real-time sequences, and twists at the end which I will not spoil. This suffices to keep the game fresh through a medium-short story of five chapters and about five hours of play time (my clock).

The weakness, I would say, is the early chapters of the game, which drop you in without much guidance as to your role. The System's goal is perfectly clear -- to suck up all data about everybody. (As personified by your smarmy handler, who reacts to every upload with gleeful suspicion.) And of course the game only progresses as you indict people. But I wasn't sure how much to care. Was it worth discarding evidence to protect this character or that one? Should I feel guilty about ruining their lives, or just play forward and see where the game was heading?

This laxity is more or less resolved by the end, which gets more personal and then offers you an explicit game-ending choice. (Nicely presented within the model you have learned.) But players may be turned off by the (apparent) uninvolvement up front. Of course, this is the whole point -- you are playing the disinterested all-powerful observer. Could the game pull you in without sacrificing that point? I'm not sure.

(Also, every time I decided someone was conspiring, more evidence turned up proving I was right. Is the engine conspiring to rewrite history for me, or am I just good at picking up cues? I would have to replay the game to be sure.)

Overall, I'm really impressed how this lays down a game model and then builds a story out of it. The actions you learn at the beginning remain consistent through the game, but they grow in important and relevance as the story progresses. This is not an easy trick. And then the story and characters are solid. A bit hammy, perhaps, but good enough to pull you through to the end.

One Night Stand

This is a short visual novel in the slice-of-life genre: you wake up naked in a strange girl's bedroom. You have a hangover and no clue how you got there.

(To be clear, my life has no slices that look remotely like this. I'm not very familiar with the visual novel genre, either, for that matter.)

The story has no genre twists (that I discovered!); it's a straightforward presentation of an awkward conversation. You can aim for more awkward or less awkward. You can snoop around to try to clue in about what happened. You can be gentlemanly or jerkly. Any way you cut it, the scene ends in about ten minutes and then you're on your way home.

This being the case, the game flies entirely on its writing and presentation. These do very well. The writing is convincing. (Somehow very, very British -- even before the girl uses the word "whilst" in cold blood.) The art uses rotoscoped animation (hand-drawn from live video, clearly) which is both charming and extremely expressive; the girl's face and body language carry as much weight as the dialogue.

The game offers a checklist of a dozen endings. I replayed to see three of them, but I didn't feel compelled to find the rest. The game structure wears a bit thin on repetition: many of your obvious choices are cut off and pulled back to the main story-thread. It's not that there are no interesting branches; rather it turns out that they're determined by the intervals where you're looking around the bedroom. You can look at just a couple of items at a time, and each one opens up a subject for the following conversation interval. So it's a more subtle structure than I expected, but searching it thoroughly would require a lot of experimentation. It would also require playing a bunch of unpleasant roles (the snoop, the bully, etc) and I just didn't want to go there.

At any rate, this tries to do something simple and constrained, but pulls it off with style.

Ladykiller in a Bind

A full-length visual novel about a high school graduation cruise. This is not to say that it is a slice-of-life story about high school. It's... well, it's not SF/fantasy; nor is it realistic contemporary fiction. I'm pretty sure the genre is anime, which is to say a sort of over-the-top implausible melodrama which doesn't pretend to be realistic but also doesn't include explicitly fantastical elements.

(Obviously there's SF/F anime too, but that's another genre again. Yes, there's a reason I'm off on genre again.)

So, in this case, we have twins swapping places, genius kids, millionaire kids, pirates, hackers, a voting game with a five-million-dollar prize, implausibly baroque social entanglements, and implausible amounts of baroque sex.

...Because the game is also smut. It is excellent smut. It features a diverse cast of characters -- I mean diverse in their attitudes, goals, and sexualities as well as their origins. Some of them want to bone you, and you can pursue these relationships or not. The sex scenes are themselves diverse, educational (if you have not encountered that diversity in your own life), well-written, and (not incidentally) really really hot.

Okay, it's good writing and it's good erotica. Is it a good game? I cannot answer this without talking about what I want out of games, which is complicated.

When I pick up a visual novel (or choice-based game in general), I tend to wrong-foot myself by asking "What am I trying to accomplish here?" Because of course the genre-convention answer is "Why ask me? Pick one of several available goals and pursue it, or, you know, just play and see what happens."

Not that these genres can't involve difficult challenges, or even explicit puzzles! They can; but that's something the author decided to add. (Just as, when we first talked about "puzzle-free IF" in the 90s, puzzles were something the author decided to omit.)

In fact Ladykiller has a couple of explicit challenges. You must try to keep people from suspecting your secret; you can try to win that social voting game. But these challenges mostly exist to serve the story framework. (E.g., the suspicion mechanic pushes you to interact with the character who can clear your suspicion stat.) The vote system, whether you care about it or not, is also currency for story entanglements. And the whole presentation of the game supports you thinking at the level of branching story outcomes. The game-mechanical stats are kept visible, and story choices are explicitly labelled with rewards and penalties. Story threads are tracked in scenes ("character X: scene 3 of 5") and you are regularly asked which thread you want to make progress on.

Again, this is all genre convention. Why am I going on about it? Well, as I've said, I haven't played many visual novels. Ladykiller is the first large one I've finished. So I'm trying to sort out what I think about them! (And you, lucky reader, get to follow along. Or else you rolled your eyes and bailed out four paragraphs ago. You decide.)

I think... I have never been entirely happy with the degree of control that choice-based games offer. A game that puts me into a single storyline: that's fine. The author dictates the story level, I control the moment-by-moment level. But when the core of the game is letting me steer the story branch-by-branch and chapter-by-chapter, I find that I'm not entirely on board with the options that are offered. I can get in the ballpark of what I want to do, but it's not quite there.

In my Ladykiller play-through, I wound up boinking three characters. I decided that X was a "never doing that again" experience; Y was "this was a very educational fling, thank you"; Z was "I have a giant crush on you and wish to keep you." And the game almost supported that. I wound up with an ending where X vanished and I got a negotiated OT3 relationship with Y and Z. And that's fine as narrative; it followed from the protagonist's scenes. But it wasn't actually what I wanted out of the story! The protagonist was way more interested in Y than I was, and I had no way to express that.

I could play another run, try to find "better" ending. That's what these games are built for -- exploring the potential space. But I'm never quite interested enough to spend the time. And that's my problem with choice-based games in a nutshell.

(Admittedly, the excellent smut is a strong motivation to replay, in this case...)

(I'm sure someone will argue that the negotiation between player control and author control is completely on-theme for the game. I would respond (a) it's not a negotiation after the author ships the game, I know that rodeo, kid, and (b) don't be a smartass. Although, okay, you're not wrong.)

Anyway. End of analytical tangent. Ladykiller is a solidly-constructed entry in the world of choice-based narrative IF. It is thoughtful and literate erotica and it's a lot of fun. I don't think it's my genre, but I still liked it.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Exactly what it says: a dramatization of the 1979 Iranian revolution, or moments of it, at least. You are a photojournalist, home from a year abroad, discovering that "home" is a word that covers a lot of ground. Contested ground.

Necessarily this kind of game serves two aims: the dramatic and the didactic. 1979 Revolution wants to immerse you in Iran-circa-1979; it wants to show you (the player, most likely a Westerner, in 2016) what that world was like; it wants to make you care. And it does these things successfully, but not smoothly. I felt like the game was always either in didactic mode or dramatic mode.

Didactic is a bit distanced. Here is Reza, the local boy, walking around examining the elements of his own life for your benefit. Yes, he's been out of town, and no, he doesn't act surprised at his home-town food or friends. The background material is wrapped up in an extra-diegetic journal that fills in as you go. But by the same token, it's a part of the game which is addressed to you, not to the protagonist.

As for the dramatic scenes -- the designers are clearly taking cues from the Telltale line. You have a lot of X/Y/Z dialogue choices, a lot of "Hossein will remember that!" tags, and frequent quick-timey interaction moments. These were, again, somewhat clunky. I failed quite a few scenes because I just didn't understand how to click-to-proceed. Eventually I figured out the game's UI conventions, and I got on well after that.

However, the question is not "how well-implemented is this story?"; it's "am I glad that someone told me this story?" And the answer is... well, it's not a happy story. I mean, it's not fun. You are involved in a chapter of Iran's history where people were arrested, tortured, or shot in the street by an autocratic regime. The game is about those people. It drops you into a torture prison, faces you with the (real-history) torturer-in-chief Asadollah Lajevardi.

It also drops you into Reza's life, with his ordinary-if-upper-class family, his friends, his city. You see his father's real-life home movies and his family photos. (Contributed by pointedly anonymous benefactors of the game project.) These are most honest and moving moments, I think -- more so than the cinematic scenes of being shot at or arrested.

It is an unashamedly biased presentation. From the inside, the revolution is idealistic, a fervent time of truth spoken to power. The protestors have been failed by the Shah's regime; they will be failed by the Islamic republic that is to come; they are betrayed by their own internal disagreements and the sins they will commit in the course of their revolution. The game nods to all of that. But it still casts them as heroes. It's hard to disagree.

So yes, I am glad that I have experienced this. I was in grade school in 1979; I remember hearing about the revolution as a distant, paper-thin shadow of an event. I remember that we didn't like Khomeini. I don't even remember how I knew that; it was schoolboy jokes, third-hand cultural miasma. This game is a window into the era for people like me -- a narrow slantwise window, but more than I had.

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Notes from GDC

I could have titled this post "Survived GDC!" Maybe even "Surviving GDC," since I've worked up some tips about the experience. But before I get there...

GDC was great. Had a blast! Involving no literal explosions! So a big win all around.

I got to see a whole lot of people. If I start listing names it'll get boring and I'll forget some anyway. So I'll just note that I met Alexis Kennedy (of FailBetter Games) and Jeff Vogel (of Spiderweb Software). Among lots of others. And of course even more people that I know from the IF world or the game conference circuit and was happy to see again.

Excellent talks:

  • Narrative Innovation Showcase (lightning showcase by many designers, assembled by Clara Fernández-Vara and Matthew Weise).
  • Meg Jayanth on NPCs in 80 Days. (Here's a related talk she gave at Practice last year -- Vimeo.)
  • Alexis Kennedy on narrative in Sunless Sea, and also boozing it up on stage.
  • Sam Barlow on Her Story.
  • Adam and Rebekah Saltsman talking about how they decide what games to develop at their indie studio.
  • Jane Ng on the art design and implementation of Firewatch.
  • The development of the Hitman and Tomb Raider franchises into Hitman Go and Tomb Raider Go.
  • Tetsuya Mizuguchi looking back on 15 years of Rez.
  • I didn't even attend any of the Friday talks, such as the extremely interesting open-source release of Inkle's game engine.

I am not going to do per-talk writeups, but you can read Emily's posts (Mon, Tue/Wed, Thu/Fri). Also Aaron Reed's post.

Then there was the show floor. Enough corporate wealth on display to make the most hardened Wall Street analyst weep. After my first walkthrough, I tweeted:

Getting all my GDC sizzletakes out of the way up front: There are some great games. But I'm still not buying an Xbox or PS4. And VR is bunk. (@zarfeblong)

Yes, that's snarky (even for twitter-compressed punditry) but I meant it. Not that VR is vapor -- there were plenty of functional devices on demo. But the amount of... stuff... invested in that VR tech is really absurd. Feature-adds like air movement and AR; middleware and tools; colleges offering VR training; every single game bragging about VR support. You know most of it will fail. The whole point of industry expos is to show off products most of which will fail. The only question is whether it will all fail.

I suspect it will all fail. I say that because it provides the maximum humor value if I'm right. Go on, tell me you have a better metric.

Anyhow, on the fringes of the Unreal/Oculus/Sony/Unity/Microsoft/Amazon hellscape, one could find the good stuff:

And, of course, the most exciting demo -- don't judge me -- the live preview of Cyan's Obduction. It got a trailer a couple of weeks ago, but only GDC attendees have gotten a chance to wander around the opening area. It looks great! It's very definitely a Cyan game: strange empty landscape, machines, staticky holograms. But up to modern graphical standards, of course. (Cyan got space in Unreal's expo booth because they make the engine look good.) I wore my Myst Online shirt, shook hands with a couple of Cyan folks, and felt generally elevated about the coming game.

I want to talk about the GDC experience, because the conference is big, scary, expensive, and not for everybody. My first GDC was four years ago. I had a pretty good time... but it wasn't worth my time and effort. This year was my second GDC and it was absolutely worth my time and effort. The difference is important.

Four years ago, the talks were okay. I had the "summits and tutorials" pass -- intermediate between the indie pass (cheapish) and the full-week pass (no way unless your company picks up the tab). I went to a bunch of talks, and they were pretty cool, but they weren't about the most interesting games or the most interesting authors out there. The show floor had the IGF showcase, but nothing else relevant to my life.

This year, the narrative track was on fire. Positively. Just one awesome presentation after another. The indie track had some great stuff too, but really, you wanted to be at the narrative talks. You wanted to go chat with the narrative speakers in the post-talk wrap-up area. Or just sit around listening to the conversations! That's cool too. So big props to the organizers.

Another thing: four years ago, I didn't know anybody. I mean, I knew people in the IF world, and some of them were there. Emily gave a talk on Versu. We had a big IF dinner meetup. A couple of people said "Hey, you're Andrew Plotkin! I love your work!" But it was not a very social event for me. And, great talks or not, it's the social that makes GDC memorable.

What was different this year? I know a lot of people. I've been to lots of smaller game events -- Indiecade, Boston FIG, Wordplay, Practice, gaming tracks at sci-fi conventions. Our own Boston IF meetup. PAX -- well, PAX isn't a small event, but it's cheaper than GDC and you can find cool folks there.

Perhaps you are terrible at meeting people. I am terrible at meeting people! I didn't meet very many people at GDC 2012. But if somebody says hi to me at an event, maybe I'll say hi back the next year, and at another event we'll chat a little, and the following year we'll go out for lunch somewhere. And after four years of that, GDC actually worked out great for me, socially. I was surprised too.

So if you're new to the dev scene and meeting people is a scary prospect, maybe don't start with GDC! Go to smaller events. Say hi to interesting people. Heck, try coming to the Lost Levels meetup -- it's in Yerba Buena park during GDC but you don't need a badge, you can just show up and chat. The cool people will be there.

I realize, of course, that I have an unfair advantage. I have a history of famous games -- people say hi to me. I can't apologize for this or say I don't rely on it. But I don't think that you need to be pre-famous to meet people at conferences.

(I used to freak out when people came up and squeed at me. Now I try to freak out very briefly and quietly, because the conversations wind up being pretty awesome.)

So that's my thesis about GDC. Work up to it if it's intimidating. Try to swing the "summits" pass if you possibly can, because the narrative track is the best. If money is so tight that you can't even afford the "indie" pass, there's all those other events -- some of them are free. Suggest talks, too; not everybody with a speaker's badge is a Big Name in gaming.

A few quick non-GDC notes:

I am featured on two recent episodes of the Clash of the Type-Ins podcast. In the first, I recite Bigger Than You Think while Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna shout commands at me. In the second, we do the same for (part of) The Dreamhold. Also we have a lot of fun and joke around and talk about very tangential things.

Sam Barlow curated an indie game feature on Apple's App Store earlier this month. He included Meanwhile and Hadean Lands. Which was great! Thanks, Sam. (Sam has now won every possible award in the past twelve months for Her Story, possibly including the Fields Medal and the America's Cup. If it were me I honestly might switch to competitive origami just to take off the followup pressure.)

And finally, I got my head scanned. Jason Scott threw a party celebrating five years at the Internet Archive, and one of his friends brought a handheld 3D scanner. So now you can download my head. Sorry about the nose blivet; it's not a perfect scan.

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IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (March, San Francisco, expensive). This year I was invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative (along with Emily Short and some other folks you might know).

As I understand the awards process, it's a three-phase thing. A large pool of game experts and designers nominate a large list of games, and then spend a few months playing and commenting on them. (The long list was over 750 games this year.) Smaller groups of experts then look at the top-voted entries on the long list and select six finalists. The final winners will be announced from GDC on March 16th.

I was involved in phase 2, which meant playing a bunch of games (but like a dozen, not 750!) and then talking them over with the other folks on the narrative jury. I have permission to post my game notes (although not, of course, anything the other jurors said!) and that's this post.

The finalists in the Narrative category were (in alphabetical order): The Beginner's Guide; Black Closet; Her Story; The Magic Circle; That Dragon, Cancer; Undertale. Congratulations to all of them! And to the finalists in the other categories, too.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. I don't feel I've played enough games this year to have a sense of what's best overall. I had enough trouble squeezing in the time to play the Narrative nominees!
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.) I had already purchased (and played) Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide on my own account.
  • I wrote these comments in the order that I played the games. Except for Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide, which I wrote up pretty much when they occurred to me.
  • Nearly all of the top-voted narrative games were available for Mac! Good news for us Mac folks. (I asked about this in advance; I wouldn't have accepted the invitation if I couldn't play the games.)
  • See also Emily Short's post of comments about the voting process.

My voting criteria were... well, Emily's post has a good list of points: mechanics that support the story, observant writing, and substance. I care about all of those things, but it's an extremely subjective process. I certainly didn't give a finely-graded point-based score to each game. I also didn't simply vote for my favorite games. Obviously my preferences color everything! But the audience here is people who follow indie gaming, not just me, so I tried to keep that in mind.

In the end, I tried to pick the games which will make gamers say "Holy crap, games are even more narratively awesome than I thought."

Games that I discuss in this post:

  • The Writer Will Do Something
  • Sun Dogs
  • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald
  • The Beginner's Guide
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Her Story
  • The Magic Circle
  • Emily Is Away
  • Cibele
  • Read Only Memories
  • Oxenfree
  • Sunset
  • Undertale

Onward to the comments!

The Writer Will Do Something

Clever, sharp portrayal; writing from the heart, which is to say it will go over well with everybody in the biz; not particularly interactive. Makes good use of the palette of "nuh-uh" interactivity -- familiar stuff but it's short enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome.

In the end this is an anecdote which will draw a regretful nod from anybody who's even remotely close to the game industry. (I am only remotely close myself, mind you.)

Sun Dogs

Very atmospheric but it feels sparse. You start with one mission but it is difficult to find any others. (I found one other mission on my first play-through, none on my second.) Mostly you fly around and have a collection of disconnected encounters. You accumulate an inventory of capabilities and bric-a-brac; some of this opens up alternate encounters and endings, but you can't effectively search for these options, so you're stuck with random exploration.

Sometimes you die unexpectedly and lose some of your stuff. This is a minor nuisance, which fits the setting -- but since the only achievable goal is "randomly collect all the stuff", this is a serious drawback in play.

If there were a way to follow connections, or enough content that you were constantly running into story element connections by sheer luck, this would be a lot more engaging. As it is I've played twice and I feel like I've done it all.

Langeskov Emerald

This was a bagatelle, and yet I laughed! Reader, I laughed.

The game relies entirely on a deft absurdism, juggling silly concepts of how games do (or should) work. If you care more or less about making games than I do, it will fall flat. Probably the fact that it works at all (for me) just shows how young videogames are as a medium; you can't go to this well often before everybody (including me) starts saying "Yeah yeah, meta-humor, next please." But this time, I laughed.

(Second thoughts: didn't Portal 2 do all these jokes plus a whole range of other emotional tones, plus great puzzle design? I guess it did. So I'm just a sucker for British comedians. Fine.)

The Beginner's Guide

Having just played Langeskov Emerald Whatsit, I should write up my thoughts about The Beginner's Guide (which I played last month).

I found TBG really engaging. Yes, three out of my first four games in this IGF thing are "game-writing by game writers about game-writing", and that's too many. I have no desire for this medium to disappear up its own self-regarding butthole. And no, TBG is not the best writing or the best character story I've encountered this year. The construction of Coda's games is too artificial, too geared towards the narrator's presentation of them -- I was never able to believe in a real Coda (even outside the narrator's distortions).

But TBG hits three of my, as they say, bulletproof kinks. First: unity of form and content -- ideas about games are presented in a game, in a way that really wouldn't be possible in any other medium. Second: the unreliable narrator -- my brain is engaged in absorbing the story on multiple levels, trying to figure out how they relate or contradict. Third: the questions of fame, public persona, personal boundaries, and what we get from this whole crazy enterprise anyhow.

As I said in my notes about Emerald Tiger Whatever, this is a young medium. When I say that, I mean that a game can impress me simply by taking on a topic or an approach I've never seen before. The next generation will be over all that. I'm not, and I just love the way TBG revels in doing this sort of thing. Can you do characterization via Let's Play, addressing the player directly all the way through and putting the entire story in subtext? Of course! Boom. I'm sold.

That Dragon, Cancer

An emotional gauntlet to get through, obviously, but also a relief after all the clever Stanley-Parable-ness. Someone tells us a story -- an actual story that happened to him. That's all. It's not clever. It's simple, honest, and it works.

Okay, not all of it is simple. The game-metaphor scenes come perilously close to being clever, and I think they lose power because of it. When I see a game, I start to look for game mechanics -- that's a distraction. I'm sure the point is to set up game convention (try to win) against story convention (no victory), which is fine, but we've seen that trick dozens of times before. Show me how you drowned. That's what works.

Let me rephrase my complaint: the game felt scattershot. The chapters went back and forth between metaphors that you observe and metaphors that you engage with. Maybe "unbalanced" is the word I'm looking for.

Then, in the middle, the scene with the baby toy and the four-part conversation. That used interactivity to present points of view, which was -- actually really cool! But again, out of balance with the rest of the game. A degree of meaningful control existed only in that scene, and then we are back to being (complicit) observers. I dunno, I'm probably splitting hairs that absolutely nobody else cares about.

Show me a hospital bed. Show me your letters to God. Show me a baby. Being in a room with a screaming baby is a human experience which, it turns out, a game can present very effectively. Why does that seem strange? Only because we keep gaming in such a small, cramped box.

Her Story

Played this several months ago, when it came out; really enjoyed it.

(I've known of the author since ancient times in the IF community. However, we didn't meet in person until this year's Indiecade, after I played the game.)

I have nothing to say about the game itself except "See what happens when you have exactly one mechanic and tune the entire game experience around it?" (The CRT-style screen distortion was a bit much for me, I admit. I turned that off.)

The sneaky part of why Her Story is awesome, and I didn't really get this until I started reading other people's reviews, is that it pretty well works no matter how you approach it. (Despite having no gating mechanism at all.) Every player is going to run into different bits of information first, but there's a common cycle of "Huh, this is strange", "Huh, I suspect shenanigans", "Huh, I wonder if...". This indicates a very broad spread of very minor clues, which must be a lot harder to set up than it is to say.

The other bit I want to talk about is how genre-fluid the story is; it has interestingly different readings whether you think of it as a police procedural, a gothic thriller, a contemporary fairy tale. But I basically lifted that observation off Emily's review posts, so I'll leave it for her to discuss. :)

The Magic Circle

Whew. There was a fair amount of that game. I mean, compared to Tiger Heist Langerhans, anyhow.

So, The Magic Circle had a lot of fun in it -- but not compared to the amount of game there was. The core mechanic was good, and they worked a lot of clever stuff into it... but it still felt like about six-to-eight clever puzzle scenes spread out over a lot of landscape. Mind you, they could have paced it out with combat! (Which would have been awful.) I enjoyed the exploration enough to finish the game. (Despite the truly terrible framerate on my Mac, sigh.)

But! We're not here to talk about game mechanics. (Or framerate.) The narrative was... not as closely connected to the game as it needed to be. This is a game about taking control of your experience as a player -- but your trip around the fantasy/sci-fi world is an extended hacking session whose goal is "end the hacking session". It has no influence on anything in the narrative until the moment you hack Coda's terminal. And in the meantime... journals. I have nothing against journals per se, but all the background kind of hammered in the point that the story was on hold for most of the game's duration.

There was plenty of background. It was well-written. I was motivated to collect it all, which is all the excuse that journals need. Still -- it was jarring to reach the endgame and feel the story jolt back into gear, while also removing most of the exploring-and-experimenting mechanics that I'd been enjoying.

Cheesy meta presentation tricks at the start and end... full points. I will never have anything bad to say about cheesy meta tricks.

This leaves us to the tone. After four? five? stories' worth of game designers talking about game design, I think we have a respectable sample, and I will say that TMC's approach was my least favorite. It was fundamentally nasty: everybody in the story was an asshole. And, as an evocation of an archetypical game project, it implied that everybody is an asshole. The design gurus, the programmers, the level builders, the artists, HR, the playtesters, the customers, the fans. The guy who once wrote a famous text adventure and wants to move on to other things. (Cough.) All of us. Assholes.

Except possibly the Bastion-y AI, who is clearly a jerk but may have noble goals. To wit: teaching you to be a game designer! You can be better than all those other folks! And if you believe that, then you're the asshole.

The Writer Will Do Something was all about assholes, but (a) you could try to do better or walk away, even if it was a cursory attempt; (b) it was short. You could recognize the scenario without soaking in it. TMC was a long, sordid bath. Or, let me put it this way: TWWDS, even in its brutal portrayal, had compassion. TMC had not a scrap.

Emily Is Away

It is hard for me to think about this outside the context of Emily (Short)'s review and the other posts around that time. I read a bunch of them before playing EiA. (Usually I avoid discussion or at least skip the spoilers before I've played a game.)

(I also saw an alpha version of EiA at a Boston Indies demo meetup last year. I only looked at it for a few seconds, though -- I didn't get any of the storyline.)

So after all that, I'm afraid the game didn't have a huge impact on me. It's not my era; I didn't use Windows, I didn't use that chat interface. It does not ping for me.

Not to say it's an alien world -- I sent lots of email! To high-school crushes, even. But, well, I also spent my college years not drinking and not getting laid. (If that's not too much info.) So when I tried to "play me" in the game, it kind of forced me off into a situation that wasn't very me.

(Although by avoiding alcohol, I avoided the plot branch with the skeeviest overtones.)

I have the sense that fans are being drawn in by the nostalgia of the game's presentation; by the extreme off-stage narrative (everything important happens in the scene breaks, so it's all up to your imagination); and by the "nuh-uh" interactivity. (The untyped-rejected choices in the last scene.) This is not new stuff to IF experts but maybe the broader audience still gets a charge out of it.

But -- to the extent that it has an impact, it really emphasizes that the game is about you. Your tongue-tied regret, your sense of lost possibility, your implied unrequited crush. Even if you spent the early chapters trying to empathize with Emily, her viewpoint gets pretty well scrubbed out of the last scene. And that is kind of skeevy no matter how you got there.


I pulled this up after Emily Is Away, thinking "I'm done with Games About Game Writers, so it's time to play all the Games About Terrible Online Relationships! Ha ha kill me."

As with my grousing about GAGW, this was unfair -- all these games do different things, from different angles, and I'm really having a great time comparing them all.

Cibele is purely expository game. I will go a very short distance out on a limb and call it autobiographical. It presents itself as a dramatization of an event in the author's life. Or a dramatization of events in the lives of a social circle she was part of -- the difference doesn't weigh on my response. Either way, it rings with the same honest self-presentation that I felt in That Dragon, Cancer.

As with EiA, I am getting a story that I did not live through. My college years predated the era of hot selfies as a flirting tactic. I spent a bit of time on MUDs, but it wasn't my social milieu.

But Cibele contrasts nicely with EiA. Its narrator is a specific person; it doesn't invite me to "play me". Instead, it fills in "Nina's" background with the digital artifacts of her life. (This is very much a database-search game -- to the extent you're doing anything, you're browsing files. Compare to Portal (1986) more than Her Story.) The upshot is that I felt pulled into another person's world in exactly the way that EiA failed to. But, at the same time, I had no sense that this was my story or my world. Even when I was steering an avatar around a faux-MMO UI, it was pro-forma interactivity -- the hand on the mouse was not the voice on the headphones.

So, Cibele gives us intimacy without complicity. I could call that thematic -- the story is about unreciprocated intimacy. But, eh, that's probably crap. I think this model is just the best way the author found to present her story. (I haven't read any extra-game statements by the author, so if I'm wrong, go ahead and mock.)

(The game also gives us intimacy with subjectivity, which I appreciated. I see so much discussion framed as "male gaze" versus "female gaze". Cibele shows a woman's body in self-gaze, which really isn't either of the above.)

What hovers over the game as you play is fear. Is the the story of a victim? Again, maybe there's extra-game framing which clears that up... I don't think so, though. That's the energy of the story as I felt it. And it's resolved: no it's not. There's uncertainty, there's hurt, there's regret; but everyone is being as honest as I figure college students know how to be. We're left without a dramatic ending, which is of course how an honest personal story has to end. Life isn't over, this is just a thing that happened.

So I'm moved, and drawn in. More so than with TD,C, which really is kind of an overload -- how can you not empathize with the parents of a dying child? You monster. It's practically pre-ordained. Cibele is far more tentative, but I think more effective for that.

But, on the flip side, it is mechanically thin. TD,C screwed up some of its interactive presentation, but when it got parts right, it wowed me more than a straight database game could. EiA made good story use of its UI, and of course Her Story used its search mechanic to turn "straight database game" into something massively engaging. Cibele just doesn't have much to compare.

Sorry, I've slipped back under my (so-weighty) game-designer hat. This is not how the wider audience is going to react, and so it's a dumb note to end my review on. Cibele was a really sweet game! I'm glad I played it.

Read Only Memories

  • (John "JJSignal" James, Ted DiNola, Tommy Thompson)
  • IGF entry page
  • (did not finish)

I played about a chapter and a half of this. It's a nice production, but the story didn't grab me at all. I don't think the writing is bad -- it's pretty bouncy and there's a good variety of characters. But none of the plot hooks hooked me. AI-is-sentient, nothing new there; broke gumshoe in cyberpunk style, ditto; etc. All tropes, nothing built on the tropes.

Also, the story seems to be held together by coincidence. As far as I got, anyhow. (For all I know, the cute robot buddy turns out to be an evil mastermind. Sorry if that turns out to be a spoiler.)

Also, the conversation was all line-by-line slow-print. I maxed out the animation speed and clicked through as fast as possible; it was still slow and painful to read. Literally painful -- the game uses an eyestrain pixel font. I am not sentimental about pixels.

It's got the form of an early Sierra-Lucas-style graphical adventure, but it doesn't have much adventure-ness. It's mostly scripted conversation alternating with room-search, with just an occasional light puzzle thrown in. I'm sure this balance is deliberate, but it's not my thing. So I gave up.


I was only able to play the opening; I ran into some kind of camera bug that prevented me from advancing. (Got stuck just after entering the cave.)

The game seemed strong up to that point. The characters are vivid (in a Scooby Gang way) (original cartoon or Buffy ref, take your pick). The art is nice and the animations are smooth.

The interface lets you participate in a full-on multi-person conversation without dropping out of the move-and-explore UI. That's not ostentatious, and players might not even pick it out as a feature, but it's really impressive when you think about it. The opening scene has you and your gang of pals/rivals/relatives sneaking out to the beach. You wind up in a game of truth-or-etc, throwing embarrassing questions at each other, and incidentally setting up all the characterization -- while simultaneously wandering around, throwing rocks, grabbing a beer out of the cooler, checking the exits. Any of these things in isolation would be standard point-and-click fare, but doing it all in one smooth scene just works really well. I hope more games pick up the trick.

I didn't get far enough to feel where the story was going -- besides "ghost story" -- but I look forward to a version that's playable for me.


Strong on story, weak on making me think that I'm part of the story.

The model of "absorb narration while your hands are kept busy with low-level tasks" is common enough. (It's the bulk of Cibele, for example.) Sunset is trying to foreground this model, in fact, I think -- you are a housekeeper, literally tidying up the penthouse of the rich mover-shaker type. The fantasy-architecture space is gorgeous, luxuriously furnished, and not yours.

However, putting a lampshade on the model is not per se a solution to anything. The actual play of Sunset consists of walking into the apartment, hearing a narration of recent events, and then tooling around to complete your chores. As you do, you may find optional actions -- these are how your character gets personally involved in the story. I gather that the story arcs are "you romance your boss", "you aid the revolution", "you help get your brother out of jail". (I'm not sure whether those last two are independent.)

The problem is, these options are necessarily indirect -- you're just moving things around in an apartment -- and appear with little context. So it's not ever really clear what you're accomplishing. If you make a fancy dinner and leave it on the table, is that generous or subservient? If you move an encrypted letter, are you covering for your boss or interfering with his plans? Nor can you ever take back an action. Thus, I had no sense of trying to advance specific goals. Instead, I would just punch every button I found, on the theory that doing anything was more interesting than doing nothing. I wound up not getting very far in any of the story arcs.

(Assuming I've even understood the arcs correctly! I'm mostly going off the Steam achievements list, I admit. I've unlocked "interested in Ortega" but not "has feelings for Ortega" or "probably in love with Ortega". Okay then.)

(I'm pretty sure I boinked him in that last chapter, so I must be the casual-fling type of girl.)

What Sunset does really well is immerse you in an environment, and then convey mood through shifts in that environment. I spent three hours walking around that penthouse; I saw it empty, furnished, cluttered, damaged, repaired, reconstructed, and stripped. I performed a lot of those changes, plus some touches of my own personalization. They paralleled the narrative, and I'll say this: when I took a break, my real-life apartment suddenly looked pokey and cramped. And it took me a moment to remember where my real-life bathroom was. I swear this is true.

The period decor is fantastic. So much Helvetica. So much. This is a compliment.

What Sunset does not do so well is propel you through the story. Chores are boring. I don't know if chores have to be boring -- maybe there's a way for this to work -- but Sunset didn't make it interesting. By halfway through, I was just clicking and waiting for the story to end. Then hoping for it to end. Then pleading. As Christmas approached in the game calendar, I became desperately attached to the theory that the game would end at the end of 1972. Result: I am a person who has greeted Epiphany by flipping it the two-fisted bird, which must be an uncommon blasphemy. (The game runs three months into 1973, in case you're wondering.)

So we have a game which takes up a set of tools, and works the heck out of those tools; I think it does everything it can possibly do with them. I admire this, but I cannot recommend the game because I spent half of it wishing I wasn't playing any more.


I played this for 90 minutes, and it was... I don't know. Funny, but not that funny. It has all the JRPG conventions that make me not play JRPGs. It messes with them but it's still based on them. So I quit.

Then I look at discussion by people who are into it, and they're rapturous. I see people enthusiastically discussing how the themes work and how much there is buried in the story. How brilliant the hard ending is (which takes 15-umpty hours to reach). All under spoilers! The first thing everybody says about Undertale is that it's hard to talk about without spoilers.

Well. James Nicoll's second most famous quote is, "I don't mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface." The surface level of Undertale has nothing for me, and it's careful to conceal everything I might care about. You win, Undertale. You have successfully imitated a game I don't want to play.

...Here's a less snide way of putting it: Undertale is aimed at a particular audience, and it calls its shot right up front. I did the same thing with Hadean Lands. Want to play old-school IF with alchemy puzzles? Let's start with an old-school IF alchemy puzzle! Begin as you mean to go on. Undertale is the same way. If you don't get a huge kick out of the first 30 minutes, stop.

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What Zarf is up to, winter edition

I survived my month of a thousand conferences. Three conferences, which feels like a thousand when you put them in a four-week span. IndieCade was great! WordPlay was great! I also went to Practice, which was great! Then I was tired.

Between all of that and some assorted client work, I have had zero time to put into The Flashpaper War. Oops. So the "coming later this year" notice that I posted in May turns out to be a lie. Sorry! (This is why I didn't Kickstart it, right?)

I've updated the Flashpaper teaser page to say "Coming in 2016". I really intend to hold to that. Not least because Flashpaper was my "make some money on IF in 2015" idea. Money is awesome. I'm very keen on having some new IF for sale in 2016.

I'm still excited about Flashpaper as a game concept, too. Now that I've taken a three-month vacation from working on it, I can see that the underlying concept needs to be hit with the iteration stick a few more times. It got good responses at FIG, but it's not as catchy as I'd like. Flashpaper is unlike most IF that's out there, so it has to build its own market in order to be a hit.

In the spirit of setting expectations, I will say: Flashpaper is not parser IF. It will be an iOS game, or at least an iOS-first game. It was conceived as a touchscreen game from the beginning and that's how it will work best.

(Android may follow eventually if it seems worth the effort of porting. Yes, I say that about all my iOS projects. Nothing yet has been enough of a success to be worth learning Android programming. I live in hope.)

As for other projects: I still want to do Meanwhile for AppleTV. I took a quick stab at porting the iOS version over, but the scrolling didn't work right and then I had to put it aside for client work. I'll get back to it over the winter break.

I am also -- and don't take this as a promise but come on this is awesome -- looking at entering the Imaginary Games Jam. Registration deadline is a week from today.

And I need to sew elbow patches on my hideous plaid jacket. That jacket has been in circulation since 1987-ish. Getting a bit worn around the seams.

So those are my winter plans. Plus the usual round of keeping an eye on Inform bugs, thinking about IF libraries, hanging out, and generally messing around. The next Boston IF meetup is Thursday, by the way.

Looking farther out, I'm gonna be at GDC in March. I'm not giving any talks or anything, just visiting. It's been four years since my last (first) GDC trip, and I've met way more cool game people since then, so it's probably time to go back.

I hope to have more exciting Zarf-does-stuff news soon...

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St. Gulik added you as a friend

220px-Sacred-Chao.svg.pngPAX is nigh, and therefore I expect to lose my ability to make coherent blog updates for a while. Before I stride boldly into the Hynes Convention Center to enjoy my 1.8 feet of personal space, I'd like to frame a question.

Despite my personal GDC takeaways, the big conversation that seems to have come out of the conference is all about "social games", a category that, while nebulous, seems to comprise half "Oh goddammit FarmVille" and forty-nine percent reaction to that. From what I can tell, a cynical-but-not-incorrect definition of "social gaming" is "the viral Skinner boxes acting as venture capitalists' flypaper du jour", and in that light I can't say it really captures my interest. And yet, I find myself thinking a lot about the potential of Facebook-based games, and wishing to challenge the common perception that player-abusive games are somehow intrinsic to the platform.

While I normally avoid dichotomies, I have to admit that I find Jesse Schell's model of "persuaders" versus "fulfillers" attractive and compelling; it strikes me not so much of a good-versus-evil simplification, but rather a Discordian-style Greyface-verus-Eris framing. It casts the games that exist for the shining, pure joy of play against a dark background of games that exist primarily to control and exploit their users. And certainly, where "social gaming" is concerned, that backdrop seems quite vast and dark indeed.

So my question is: Where are the Erisian games of Facebook? I assert that Facebook is ripe for interesting and fulfilling games built specifically for its unique features, and which exist only because the games' authors wish for us to experience them, not because they want to try hypnotizing users with candied progress bars while reaching around for their wallets. Games that people will want to drag their friends into in order to share the joy, and not merely because it makes their eggplants grow faster. More after-school club, less Amway.

I would put forth TradeWars as a memorable example of a game designed to a fit a specific and peculiar digital platform - in this case, single-line dial-up bulletin board systems, as they existed circa 1990. It was[1] essentially a rendered-down digital adaptation of the tabletop RPG Traveller, taking place on a "board" of connected interstellar trade routes. While a multiplayer game, only one person -- the one user currently gumming up the BBS's single incoming phone line -- played at a time. Everyone had an equally limited number of daily turns to take, and they were guaranteed to happen both serially and in total secret from all the other players. Games usually had a set end-condition, at which point the winner received a congratulatory message in the BBS's login screen while the game world reset itself. The result was a compelling competitive experience, and a perfect fit for its medium.

Where are the TradeWarses of Facebook? By which I mean: where are the games whose "wall" posts serve only to further the fun, rather than act a big wet viral-payload sneeze into the collective face of one's friend-list? Where are the games that use Facebook's API to let people quickly assemble teams of friends to compete in clearly defined, finite-scope contests, with no more hooks into revenue streams than one finds when kids gather to play ball in a sandlot?

By one metric, more than one percent of humanity has FarmVille player accounts. If that's the best game that Facebook's enormous-and-growing userbase can play, then to say that they are ill-served is an understatement. It pains me to think that the forces of Greyface run roughshod, completely unchecked, on the world's largest digital social interface.

If such games exist within all the current "social" noise, please tell me -- I would love to learn about them. Because otherwise, if the goddess does not exist in the realm of Facebook, then someone'd best get around to inventing her.

Image: The Sacred Chao, with modification.

[1] Normally I avoid using past-tense verbs to describe old games, since that implies that they're long gone and unplayable, when that's usually not the case. But I feel compelled to make an exception here, since the entire medium of dial-up BBSes that games like TradeWars required for proper play has long since died away. The modern, web-playable recreations are just that: adaptations of the old ruleset to a new medium, not the original thing itself, now impossible to play as it once was. (I welcome correction, if I am mistaken!)

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My (vicarious) GDC takeaways

bsg and redder.jpgThanks to Twitter, I found myself vicariously attending GDC this year. Allow me to recount some of the more interesting things I heard people talking about.

Anna Anthropy released REDDER, a puzzley explore-and-collect game, free to play on the Newgrounds portal. Unlike When Pigs Fly, her previous effort, the difficultly comes not from its demanding feats of digital dexterity, but rather from the large size of the world, and the things about the world you must learn and remember while you strive to collect the shiny treasures. Give it a try, and block out a couple of hours to play it through if you like it.

One reason why I like Anna's games in particular is the same reason I liked watching the latter-day Battlestar Galactica so much. Ron Moore, BSG's executive producer, took advantage of internet publishing to create and release commentary tracks, in podcast format, almost at the same time the shows aired. They felt less like a producer reminiscing about a past project, and more like lectures about the challenges and strategies of putting an episodic TV show together, spoken by someone who was still in the thick of it.

Similarly, Anna is at least as active in presenting lectures and articles on level design (which we've linked to before) as she is with releasing actual games. Soon after I started When Pigs Fly and saw the grassy turf three screens over from the start, I may have said "heh heh" out loud. I felt that I knew exactly why she put it there, even though it had no explicit in-game effect, and I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't been reading along with her exegetic work.

Ian Bogost gave a presentation at GDC, titled "Play With Us", about how good games connect authors with their audiences in ways also seen in good poetry. He's posted its text and images on his website.

Pound's poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.

The reader does not "receive" the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.


The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.

When we play, we excavate.

Read the whole thing, please.

Jason Roher, best known today for Passage, recently announced his next independently published game, Sleep is Death. This essentially looks like a tool for setting up and game-mastering two-player online storytelling RPGs, with each player sitting at a separate internet-connected computer.

I myself lack the creative muscles to get much out of storytelling games -- that is, light-ruleset role-playing games where the main goal of players and GM (when there is a GM at all) involves telling a story together: more improv theater than dungeon crawl. However, I must treat the timing as quite auspicious, given my recent appeal to the heavens for more experimentation with online multiplayer games. As such, I anticipate the game's release with eager curiosity.

I will be interested to see whether this project appeals to crowds larger than the niche who is already enjoying tabletop storytelling games, including expressly two-player works such as Emily Care Boss's Breaking the Ice. I predict that Sleep is Death won't launch any sort of narrativist-game revolution, but that it will introduce people to that niche who should have been there all along, and just didn't know it yet. To the rest, it will be food for thought. And this will be a net win.

Please do click through the charming and clever demonstration slideshow, which mimics a gameplay session while showing you everything you need to know to get excited about this project (if you're me).

Image credit: Battlestar Galactica publicity still by SyFy; chubby little astronaut art by Anna Anthropy.

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Free game | Randomness in games | IF suggestions

Wadjet Eye Games is giving away its game The Shivah (normally $5) in honor of Yom Kippur:

his weekend is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! It's a special time of year when Jewish folk reflect on the past year. So, on reflection, we're giving away The Shviah for free.

From now until Tuesday, simply use the coupon code "FreeShivah" when purchasing and you can nab the game absolutely free of charge.

Greg Costikyan posted his talk from Austin GDC about randomness in games. Definitely worth checking out.
Nick Montfort posted his updated list of interactive fiction suggestions, games he suggests for people who have some interest in IF but who haven't played much.

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GDC: The Game

For GDC this year, Jim Munroe (novelist, author of the IF work Everybody Dies, and all-around cool guy) was commissioned by GameSetWatch to write a piece of IF (or, as he calls it, interactive non-fiction) about the GDC experience. It's a short little thing, more of a social simulator than a traditional IF game. Talking with Jim, I know that he wants to do similar kinds of things with NPCs in his future IF work, and having played with this, I'm excited to see this kind of thing done in a more fictiony piece of IF.

You can play GDC: The Game via a Java applet or via Parchment, or you can download the Z-code file and play it in whatever interpreter you wish. You can also read all of his posts from GDC about his experience, including his early thoughts about the game.

And if you play the game, you can type "CREDITS" to see my name as an alpha tester. And if you look carefully at all of the names of the testers, you will see that they have been used for the names of the NPCs in the game, which is pretty cool.

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Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

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