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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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The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

R1 had no environmental storytelling. It was ostentatiously unanchored in any physical environment. It had physicality, yes -- its puzzle-boxes were of wood, brass, glass, and steel, as conveyed by texture and sound and the direct manipulation of the touchscreen interface. But the boxes sat on spotlighted tables. The walls around you were unfocussed and dimly lit: the bare minimum to keep you feeling grounded at all. Despite the title, the game kept your attention resolutely off the room you were in.

R2 added furniture -- adjacent tables, mechanisms on the walls. Now we could talk about "the room" as a space that the game took place in. But these were still silent spaces: no history, no future.

In R3, as I said, we are given an architectural environment. We can move from room to room. We can backtrack to consider clues that were originally obscure. Occasionally the topology even becomes relevant, adding a Rhem-style puzzle or two.

These additions expand the scope for puzzle design. But do they add to the storyline? I don't think so. The journals tell us that this house is named "Greyholm", but that's the only mention of the house or anything in it, aside from undescribed "keys" and "parts of the Null". We get no history, no sense of events occurring here. We have no reason to imagine the Craftsman reading in his library or puttering in his greenhouse.

Now you may object: who says this game needs a sense of history? Perhaps the designers wanted to hew to the original R1 aesthetic -- an uncontexted puzzlebox -- while embracing the expanded puzzle possibilities of architecture. And I agree with that!

Or, from the other side: does Myst really have much more than this? Atrus writes about construction in his Ages, but you never get a picture of little Sirrus and Achenar playing in the planetarium or swimming by the dock. Myst Island resists being placed in any context beyond "they burned the library". And I agree with that too. (Although Cyan clearly saw that as a shortcoming; they stuffed as much history into Riven as it could swallow.)

So I am not criticizing The Room 3, but observing how I reacted to it: as a garden of puzzles in spotlights. The journals and letters, lacking historical context, presented themselves to me as irrelevant. So I didn't read 'em! I gave them one glance each, to check whether the pattern had been broken by a surprise clue or something, and then moved on with the "real" game.

The designers may be frustrated by this reaction. Here they are writing content and I'm ignoring it. (And I call myself a text game fan!) They're even trying to set up some narrative tension by having two sets of notes; one says "do the thing!" and the other says "it's a trap -- don't do the thing!" And I'm ignoring that too, because the game just doesn't have any space for it. There's no action you can take which corresponds to "don't fall into the trap". There are only puzzles. You solve the puzzles, or you quit out and go back to Pac-Man.

Myst, of course, set up a very similar narrative tension (red pages or blue pages?) but it managed to make it stick because you could make a choice. It was a silly choice, a clearly terrible choice, but the game let you express it. So you had a reason to at least listen. And then when the third alternative came along, you were engaged enough to count it a victory.

R3 tried an interesting variant of this. You progress through rooms, solving puzzles and collecting pieces of the Null. But as you do, you discover extra puzzles on the side. These appear unsolvable at first, but you can discover an "in" and begin solving them in parallel with the mainline puzzle rooms. Or not; up to you. If you complete both threads, then you can reach extra endings from the game's final scene.

These side puzzles are associated with the "it's a trap" notes -- but, since I was ignoring the notes, I didn't actually notice that until later. In retrospect, the designers must have intended this to be your choice: finish the main puzzle thread or the side puzzle thread? Accept the Null challenge or refuse it?

Except the game doesn't work that way at all, because puzzles are for solving. You're never forced to choose between the threads. You can work on either at your leisure; alternate threads or leave the side puzzles for later. (The side thread is unlocked by the main thread, so you can't solve it on its own. That's what makes it "side".) This is an open design (to a degree, but more open than R1 or R2 were) -- an excellent thing, but not a narrative choice. Final-scene choices are never narrative choices in the game, because the game is over.

(Yes, I'm talking about Myst here too.)

The game has structure; the main-vs-side puzzle construction is admirably clear. The final scene invites you to discover the extra endings -- unsolved puzzles, and then an extra goal beyond that -- purely through presentation. (The closing screen nudges you about which endings you've found, but it didn't have to.) My point is that this structure is not the narrative choice that the journals seem to be conveying. In fact it actively cuts against it; the game wants you to solve all the puzzles.

I'd extend this to the atmosphere, as well. The Room series has a tone of unearthly horror. But this does not flow from unreliable letter-writers or Lovecraftian tentacles. (The tentacles are kind of laughable.) It comes from the unexpected abrogation of your physical environment. You are simultaneously led to think of the world as real and as a directed dreamscape. When your expectations of structure, solidity, and architectural space fall out from under you -- that's what makes these games disturbing.

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