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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.)


Event[0]

  • (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.

Virginia

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.

Orwell

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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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.

Cibele

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.

Oxenfree

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.

Sunset

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.

Undertale

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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Gone Home: design ruminations

I don't imagine that Gone Home suffers from lack of reviews. I heard about it from several directions when it came out, and that was over a year ago. But I just played it.

(Yes, I am slowly starting to dig into the past four years of indie IF that I was too busy writing my own game to play. Yes, I will also get to Bioshock Infinity one of these months.)

I don't have anything to add to the discussion of Gone Home as a story game, or as a game about gay folks, or as a flashpoint of hatred from jerk-gamers. That's all been covered. Nor am I going to tell you why you should like or dislike the game. I liked it, a lot of people liked it, that's not news.

Instead, I'm going to give my impressions as a game designer. This is what I would have said if I were on the team building the thing. Or, more likely, having muffins with the designer during the wild-idea stage. Maybe that'll hit some new ground. If not, well, too late -- I've already written this post.

I'll start right in with some petty interface neepery. This is a game whose interface is entirely about picking things up and rotating them. But when things get interesting, it doesn't do a very good job of sticking to that interface!(*)

Objects in the game which can be manipulated, rather than just examined: housekeys. A combination dial lock. Cassette tapes. Notice something? All of these objects are rotated as part of their normal use.

But the game doesn't make use of its rotatey interface for this. You don't stick the key in a lock and turn it; you just click on the door and zap it's open. You can't turn the cassette over, stick it in the player, and hear the other side. The combination locker is particularly bad; you learn the combination in the familiar form ("turn left to X, right to Y...") but you enter the combination using a four-digit interface with arrows. (Which doesn't even match the format of the numbers you're given.)

I've already admitted this is petty. The interface they've got works and it's easy to use. To make it all rotation-based would require some additional cueing; the housekey wouldn't be automatic. But harmonious UI matters! When you pick up an object, turn it over, and discover something written on the back -- that's got that little IF zing. You used familiar actions in the world, in an intuitive way, and were rewarded. Or when you pick up an object and discover something hidden underneath. Or when you pull a secret panel aside. Gone Home has some of these moments, and they zing. Being thrown out of the UI convention to open a locker: zingless.

A more fundamental clash with my IF sensibility: the game isn't about you. No, strike that -- I'm fine with games where you discover another character's past. (I've written that one, more than once.) But this game's narration isn't positioned the way I expect.

Kaitlin, the viewpoint character, comes home from a year in Europe to discover her house is empty; she (you) then encounters texts narrated by her sister Samantha. But this confused me at first! For a few minutes, I thought I was playing Samantha, recalling her (my) experiences in the house.

When I encounter non-diegetic voice-over in a game -- texts not anchored in a found journal or tape recording -- I expect them to be my thoughts. The narrator is the protagonist is the player. Or the narrator is the protagonist addressing the player. Or maybe the narrator is a third party addressing the protagonist -- but usually there's a cue indicating that.

(This is the convention that Sands of Time twisted so wonderfully, by having the protagonist narrate the game apparently to the player, but in fact to another character in the story.)

The "twist" at the end of Gone Home -- not a spoiler -- is that you discover Samantha's letters, the ones which you've been hearing as narration. This is fine, but then how are we to understand Kaitlin's experience? Has she been wandering through the house, unaware of the story that I-the-player have been hearing, to instead learn it all at the last moment? What does this separation of the player's experience from the protagonist's accomplish? It's not revelatory (as it is in Sands of Time); it's just confusing and distancing.

How would I rewrite this? I have no pat answer. Scatter Samantha's letters through the game? Obvious and clumsy; it erases a story element, Sam's hesitance to trust you with her story. Or maybe Kaitlin should start with the letters, received over the course of the year, and recall them as the environment cues them? This still separates the player's experience (now Kaitlin knows more than you) but perhaps in a more natural way.

Or maybe Samantha should have been the protagonist, after all. Eliminate Kaitlin, who is essentially the classic faceless adventure protagonist. (She has a name, gender, and age, but no personality or relationships beyond the excuse of a year abroad. In retrospect her opening monologue, promising to arrive home, is what tripped me up as much as anything: it's a false promise, a voice that will never be heard again.)

Would Gone Home have worked better with Sam's point of view as well as her narrative voice? I don't know. I just feel like the game-as-it-is missed an opportunity.

(The idea of "I am the protagonist, and I am going to tell you a story even as you manipulate me like a puppet" is one of the great weird unacknowledged conventions in gaming. It's somehow become completely natural, even cliche, to players -- even though it makes no narrative sense. I don't blame Gone Home for not using it! But it's familiar because it fills a need: it credits both the author and player with 100% responsibility for the story, with an unspoken agreement to ignore the contradiction.)

Well. I've made two criticisms, but my goal here is not to complain. (As I said, I liked Gone Home!) Let me switch tracks and talk about what kind of game it is.

(Or, if you don't think Gone Home is a game(**), I'll talk about what kind of game it isn't. I'm an atheist, but I'm a Jewish atheist.)

What game mechanics are we given? A dense environment with a lot of environmental story elements. Locks and combination dials, with the keys and combos found elsewhere, mixed in with story cues. Notes about secret passages and hidden panels, which are then marked on a map. A plot which is gated using these keys and map markings. A structure in which you have to backtrack to use them, discovering new elements in familiar rooms. Creating shortcuts, once you've reached an area, by unlocking a door from the other side.

Any of these mechanics could appear in nearly any kind of character-centric game: action, adventure, platformer, RPG. But if you ask which archetype game had all of them, I immediately answer: Silent Hill.

My contention: Gone Home is survival horror minus the horror and the survival elements.(***) And this is not surprising, because the core trick of survival horror is getting you to move slowly and focus on your environment. That's what this game wants. It doesn't lean on the threat of stumbling into a zombie pit, or even (c.f. Fatal Frame) the penalty of missing a one-shot ghost manifestation. But it does put you in a dark room, fumbling for a light switch. And you don't want to miss anything.

I do wonder how much of this flirtation with the survival-horror form is deliberate. While playing, I knew (from minor spoilers) that Gone Home doesn't end in blood-soaked tragedy. But I half-expected a tragic ending anyway! My expectations were drawn by the familiar horror trappings, both the environment (the dimly-lit empty house) and the Silent Hill mechanics. I suspect that was deliberate. Certainly there are story elements which allow you to imagine both a ghost story and a contemporary tragedy, a Gay! Teen! Suicide! plotline. Again, I knew that the story wouldn't be resolved that way (and I would have been deeply off-put if it had been). But the form plays into that tension as much as the text does.

I also wonder about the decision to place the game so firmly in 1995. I imagine (without checking) that this comes from the experience of the authors, that they were in high school in the mid-90s. It's a personal game, certainly. And the setting helps place Sam as a particular character, rather than a projection of the contemporary player. (Though Kaitlin is such a projection.)

But the effect is that the game feels dated; it was dated the day it launched. (As distinct from feeling retro or nostalgic or a period piece.) The experiences of queer high school students today are not those of Sam and Lonnie. Lonnie is a ROTC student; Sam comments on the don't-ask-don't-tell policy -- brand-new in 1995, but two years gone by the time the game was released. High school students today still have problems, but they're also (nationally) (on average) ahead of the curve, openly dragging their elders ahead.

It's hard not to notice, playing in 2014, that Sam and Lonnie could well be married and raising kids today. Or split up (high school romances, right?) and married to other people. Or not married. Or not identify as lesbians, or not identify as women, or not be alive. Gone Home does not address this, and that suits; it's the narrative of 17-year-olds. I'm not that age; the authors aren't. Are they writing for today's teenagers? People their own age? (Maybe this is nostalgia after all: the nostalgia of having believed that 17 was forever.)

The game feels dated in another way. It's personal, as I noted, but not in the confessional sense that the Twine community has embraced. It's about the experience of otherness, but it doesn't present it as your experience. Again: not the player's story, but a story told to the player.

I've come to expect this genre to be in my face, daring me to empathize. Radical otherness. But of course Gone Home isn't in that genre, or any of the intersecting IF communities that I'm familiar with. So there's my extra, un-looked-for dose of alienation: Gone Home is outsider art to me. I have no conclusion to draw from that.

Coincidentally, the day after I played, the author tweeted:

(quote from email): "...why do you think the majority of people are in agreement with lesbian relationships..."

interestingly, of the criticism Gone Home has gotten, this has been the rarest type of complaint. -- Steve Gaynor, 3 Dec 2014

The obvious reply is that it's 2014 and the majority of Americans are "in agreement" with lesbian relationships. That's been true for many years. (Same-sex marriage flipped more recently.)

That wasn't my reaction, though. I would reply: Gone Home is the story of your sister coming out. Is that something you are "in disagreement" with? What would your sister say to that? Or: what if you project yourself as the parents in the game? They are, after all, depicted with far more specificity than the faceless Kaitlin. So you're horrified by homosexuality; can you reject a game about what it's like for your child to come out? Because that's a thing that can happen.

(Ironically, if you assert that it can't happen, you're aligning yourself with the parents as they're depicted. So Gone Home should speak more to your interests. This is awfully clever of it.)

I guess that's all. Lo. I have ruminated.

Coincidentally (again), this weekend after I played, Fullbright Games announced their next game: Tacoma. There's a video teaser. I have no comment, except to say that if they really plan to do an environmental exploration game in free-fall, they've got a hell of a lot of design work ahead. I look forward to it.

(* It may have been Nick Montfort who first pointed this out in my presence.)

(** No, I don't have any real patience for the argument that Gone Home "isn't a game". One can have an interesting discussion of what "game" means, but not on the Internet, not this year. The bullshit artists have drowned out the genre analysts. We move on.)

(*** I have just cheated and done a web search on "gone home" "survival horror". Okay, I'm not the first person to assert this. Fine.)

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Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

I know, this is the core question of the game-design era, and I'm not going to solve it. But the fairy-tale approach appeals to me, because fairy-tale archetypes give us a model of story ideas that are simple -- boiled-down, even -- and yet still resonant. Surely we can say something as simple as "there were three brothers..." while incorporating player choice.

There were three... brothers? Sisters? Siblings? If the player merely chooses the genders and then lets the story run, is that interactivity? (Yes, and probably interestingly. But this addresses the gender roles of traditional fairy tales, rather than their static-fiction form.) If you choose the character, with his or her particular motivation, and then let that run? (Perhaps.)

There were three siblings, and the first was... The second was... Does the story have to be about the third? Can each sibling have his or her own adventure? (Certainly. This is too simple, though, if you just write three stories and paste them together at the front. The point of three siblings is so that we can cheer the least and unluckiest one to victory. Now, if each protagonist thinks he or she is the least and unluckiest -- because they all value different things -- and then each one sees the others stumbling somehow to failure, and sets off to rescue them, while being rescued along the way in two different and (from the interior view) less crucial ways... I think there's some silver to be mined in that hill.)

A child became lost in a forest, and... what happened next? The child traps or defeats the monster and escapes. (Or is devoured, sure, but that forest path doesn't need my feet to be well-trodden.) But how does it happen? (A cut leaf, a flask of spring water, the words to make the roses grow. Is it unreasonable to offer any of those tasks as the story, and let the player choose which one to unfold? The ending is inevitable, but the middle can go various ways. Or you could flip back and learn what happened before the beginning, when the innocent childhood wasn't so simple. Or it might be the beggar's story, after all, who gave the child a flask in return for...)

We have, to be sure, a set of fairy-tale tropes much like IF puzzles: fetch quests, token-gathering, and riddles. So we have the whole array of IF devices that apply to puzzles. Multiple solutions, optional puzzles, free ordering of puzzles, rewards or story events ordered independently of puzzle order. This is 1990s IF technology, and easy to take for granted, but worth mentioning.

@peterb suggested digging into the layers of retelling -- grandmother may tumble out of the wolf's corpse smiling, or maybe eaten is eaten, if that's what you want of it. Underneath the fairy-tale forest is the Schwarzwald, and below that starving bandits, perhaps. I like that notion.

We might have three stories stitched together more delicately: a cause here, an effect there. The interactivity is in choosing which story to follow, on the coarse level; but really the player must recognize the connections and cohere the fourth, unspoken story.

I'm not coming anywhere close to an archetype here, I admit. I'm listing particular patterns, if not specific game ideas. It may be that whereas condensed story ideas are recognizable, condensed interaction ideas are toys -- not compelling without their details of gameplay. I can tell you that you will decide who to adopt as your wise old mentor, or in what order you will defeat the conspirators, or even what virtue you will discover on the way to the witch's oven. Are these notions intriguing? They've been tried, and successes do not come to mind. Archetypes grow out of the stories we actually perpetuate, I suppose.

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Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

Life Flashes By is a pure-dialogue game which a real-world setting. Or, rather, a real world with a lightly fantastical frame that owes more to magical realism than to genre fantasy. It's a story about a somewhat disgruntled novelist who runs into an unexpected tree in the dark-forest-in-the-middle-of-her-life. She is given (or gives herself) a time-out to reflect on what she's done with her life, and what else she could have done with it. And that's it. It's not a game built around puzzles -- not even abstract conversational puzzles -- much less jumping, shooting, or matching three of anything in particular.

This is a simple experiment by some criteria, and a radical one by others. From a literary point of view, LFB is a story like many others you might read. It has a tangible character and it's well-written. Speaking as an IF person, I can say that LFB fits easily in with textual dialogue games like Galatea and Alabaster.

But if you're coming from the traditional videogame world, you may be shocked, for more than one reason. Since when do games have reams of strong dialogue about three-dimensional people? Living their ordinary lives? But also: where is the game in this game? What does the player have to try to do?

I can breezily take good writing for granted. (Go ahead, mock me.) But I suppose I have some of that latter reaction too. I got into IF when the genre was synonymous with puzzles. My horizons have, I hope, expanded since then; but I still think of games as having an inherent element of challenge, of frustration and achievement. Even if it's only "explore everywhere" or "find every ending". (A good game, or at least a good narrative game, ties the challenge to your immersion in the story or the story world.)

LFB is certainly a story. It's certainly interactive: on the moment-to-moment level of dialogue choices; in the higher-level decisions of how much time to spend in each scene and which features to discuss; and in the chapter-level choices of where in the "world map" to visit.

My problem is discerning the connection between those decisions and the story. The game's web page says:

[Life Flashes By] is a story best told non-linearly, which lends itself uniquely to the interactive nature of games. As a player, you won't just be watching a plot unfold, you'll be shaping and affecting it in a way unique to you alone.

But the non-linearity of the presentation doesn't seem to affect the story that is presented. You, speaking for the protagonist, can select her take on any given scene in her life -- regret or satisfaction, disgust or forgiveness. But I never had the sense that the attitudes I chose were part of her story. The game didn't seem to react to them, outside the context of a single dialogue sequence. The only point at which I felt I had a significant choice was at the end, where a summing-up what-did-you-think option gained some oomph simply from its final placement.

The structure of LFB may be working against me, here. It's seven scenes from the protagonist's life, and seven alternate outcomes from her choices in those scenes. Again, you can experience these in any order, and react as you will to them -- but they are memories, and imply a fixed, immutable life story. Deciding the protagonist's attitude feels like a weak reed, compared to the weight of history.

Of course, as with any game, it's possible that some of the interactivity went over my head in the first play-through. And I have only played through LFB once. (A drawback of the voice-acted approach. To replay, you pretty much have to turn on subtitles and button-mash through the spoken output. I haven't.)

So I've missed any aspect of the story that arises from the tension between different approaches. I'm not sure what to say about this possibility, except that if a game aims for that structure, it must offer some tangible motivation for replay. Visibly missed goals, perhaps, as you make divergent choices. Or directly visible consequences of the choices you did make, implying the possibility of consequences you missed. Having seen all seven primary and alternate scenes of LFB, I feel that I have experienced the whole game.

Please understand -- I recommend Life Flashes By to you. It is a polished work, with clever (consciously cartoon-style) artwork, excellent voice work, and a delightfully understated soundtrack. (I've put "Gloom and Doom and Horrible Torment" into my regular hacking-music lineup; you can think what you want of that.) The author has also extended a foot into alternate-reality-fiction; the story's main characters occasionally pop up on Twitter. (I'm following the irritating fairy foil but not the protagonist herself, and you can think what you like of that, too.)

I may have spent half of this post musing on LFB's possible weaknesses, but that's just the way I write about games. I am interested in the next game -- any next game -- and what it can do differently. Narrative games today seem to be divided into the overproduced genre romps (from the commercial world), the cruftily text-parsered (in my IF corner), and a few highly-pixelated poetic abstractions. Not too many authors sit down to write a straight-up high-quality story, in the interactive mode. For that alone you should pay Life Flashes By your attention.

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