Now Play This 2017

Now Play This is an exhibition of unusual, experimental games, some of which were specially commissioned. This year’s spread of games were much less focused on text, unlike last year, but there were nonetheless intriguing little gems. The following pictures highlight some of the things that caught my eye. Last year’s post can be found here.


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Impossible games, games still half-formed, were exhibited in the Library. It was a delight to see Nate Crowley’s (@frogcroakley) game ideas – one thousand of them he’s written, and some of them were printed on slips of paper, arranged first in a grid, until they piled up in a corner. There are so many. Some bonus news: Nate’s working with Rebellion Publishing to produce an art-heavy book featuring the game ideas, and part of the proceeds will go to Zoological Society of London, to support frog conservation!

The Library also featured Becca Rose’s Bear Abouts, one in the unusual controllers category. It’s a story of a bear going on a journey, played on a tablet, where placing different physical props on the tablet screen produced different results. The game is still in development, but the possibilities are intriguing. Could you send out props as ‘feelies’? Or send people the conductive paper and magnets for them to make their own?


The Window Room played with mirrors and was overall a quieter space in the hubbub of Somerset House.

A GAME FOR ONE PLAYER: DECIDE ON A YES/NO QUESTION TO ASK THE WORLD; THEN STATE IT OUT LOUD. WITH CLOSED EYES, KNOCK YOUR FIST ON THE PLINTH THREE TIMES, THEN CIRCLE YOUR HAND OVER THE PLINTH THREE TIMES. POINT. OPEN YOUR EYES. DON'T MOVE. WHEREVER YOUR POINTING FINGER IS REFLECTED, THAT'S THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION.
Game instructions written on a mirrored plinth, with the aim of finding an answer to a yes/no question

Game instructions were printed on mirrored plinths. Some were basically divination rituals; others were cooperative games.

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Top view of above plinth: a plastic tile reads “please rephrase the question”

Some of the answers the plinth provided were less than helpful… In divination, after all, the burden of interpretation falls on the participant, and interpreting the results you get is part of the gameplay.


Dead Pixels, by Tatiana Vilela dos Santos and Olivier Drouet, is a multiplayer game in which players moves their avatar around to ‘claim’ territories on the screen. The catch: contested territories become dead pixels, which belong to no one. This unexpectedly got me thinking about how conflict scars places and things and people, and how it’s so often not so much about the territory gained itself, than about power.

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Dead Pixels in action

10000 Years, by Heather Robertson, explored a topic which fascinated me when I first read about it – the design for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a design meant to keep people away for ten thousand years – for the radioactivity in this place will make it deadly long after the last person forgets about it. The blurb for 10000 Years puts it well: “We can never truly escape the consequences of our actions.” The protagonist in this game is from the future, then, and only incompletely understands the significance of the symbols. The symbol for radioactivity, for example, is a sigil resembling an angel. Is it redemption, then, of a sort, for beauty to reveal itself, even in such cruel environments?

Danger seems to emanate from below, and out of the Keep in the form of stone spikes-- The shapes suggest danger to the body... wounding forms-- They seem not _
Picture of game screen, because I couldn’t take a screenshot. It looks more… post-apocalyptic this way

The graphics, here, are really ASCII characters. Interaction reminded me somewhat of Kitty Horrorshow’s games – wander through a barren land, discover notes left for you.


The Letter Room featured Aïda Gómez’s Joy is Here, which turned the entire room into a wordsearch. What struck me was how, faced with such an open invitation, some people created their own rules.

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Walls turned into a blackboard, with letters written at regular intervals; people have chalked circles around letters to form words

I love Burly Men at Sea so much. Pastel illustrations; a charming, fairy tale-like story (and, for me, easy to use controls…), creatures from folklore… displayed alongside the game were physical representations of a possible path through the story.

Page of a book in the sun - there is a pastel-hued illustration of three men with round beards, all soft edges and round shapes. There is story text above the illustration, too small to read.
Page from one of three books displayed

Another charming, peaceful one was Sandcastles by Patrick Smith, a touchscreen game in which pulling upwards creates a pleasingly geometric sandcastle. It’s hard to get it ‘wrong’, and whatever you do, it’s washed away in the tide seconds later, so it’s forever a clean slate. This is one I could envision as an idle game. This was also pretty hard to film… but here is a GIF for your viewing pleasure.

sandcastle_game.gif


General impressions

Now Play This felt more crowded this year. More people? Smaller space? I don’t know. While I’m happy the games appear to be reaching a larger audience – an audience which might not otherwise know about these games – the crowd made it hard to really get into any of the games, not with five other people standing around watching you play. On the other hand, though, watching is perhaps also a form of participation,

I appreciated spaces and rooms which invited players to another world. Last year, it was Larklamp that so captured my imagination. This year, there was the Haunted Room, in which you play with hand mirrors to capture spirits. There was some technical wizardry involving a projector and mirrors, but unfortunately the room filled up so quickly that I couldn’t squeeze in to find out what was going on.

There were lots of children, especially at the Library, playing with the unusual controllers.

Above all, though, the games featured in Now Play This overwhelmingly have a sense of playfulness, of whimsy, of exploration. While people clamour for bigger worlds and more complex stories and better simulations – while people constantly seek more, more, more in their games, I welcomed the invitation to come in, stay a while, and explore small, self-contained worlds.

Liminal spaces

Liminal spaces are spaces characterised by transition and impermanence: bus stations, waiting rooms, airports. The first few days of the year often feels the same way to me. All I seem to see is retrospectives and forecasts: forever looking back and looking forward, because the year hasn’t quite got its footing. It seems appropriate, then, to highlight one such game which occupies a similar space.


Bus Station, Unbound, by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst (IFDB; inklewriter; play here)

[Time to completion: 45 minutes. Some branches may describe violence]

You’re going home for Christmas, for the first time in years, if only to make up for all the damaged relationships you’ve had over the years. But the snow is coming down hard, and your next coach is likely to be delayed.

The authors describe this substantial, large work as primarily an interactive novel, but it works as a vaguely open-world exploration as well. There are lots of optional ‘side quests’ and characters with whom you can interact; exploration opens up different endings and storylines.

But this is built on an emotional heart, reflected in the parallels between the PC and the building. The location’s brokenness reflects the PC’s own. The shoddiness of the building itself, the glitchy machinery, the inertia of the buses, even the irritable, argumentative NPCs: aspects of these are reflected, in some way or other, in the PC’s own relationships with their family and in their own life decisions. Perhaps even the liminal nature of the bus station – a space characterised by transition and impermanence – reflects how the PC stands on the cusp of something new.

The theme of symbolically rich buildings, buildings as containers for ideas, is not a new one. This idea, for instance, is taken more literally in Bruno Dias’s Four Sittings in a Sinking House (IFDB page). In both, the titular building reflects brokenness elsewhere: it is the PC themselves in Bus Station, Unbound, while it is the owners’ material worship in Four Sittings.

Something else I enjoyed in reading this were the contrasts and almost-contradictions in the bus station’s ‘characterisation’. It is described in ways that sit uneasily with each other. It is at once a “monstrous waste of money”, but also a structure of “pale concrete petals”, “heartlike” in its action. The storylines invite comparison between Preston Bus Station’s mundanity and terror, human warmth and mechanical coldness. You might run across bus station staff, whose roles are entirely expected, almost boring; or you might stumble into an abyss which would not be out of place in Failbetter Games’s Fallen London.

Bus Station Unbound is pretty word-heavy, and it deserves the title of ‘interactive novel’, but there is a lot in here to explore.


Another game worth mentioning, even if I have not yet collected my thoughts regarding it, is Bruno Dias’s Not All Things Make it Across, a collection of short vignettes drawing from his previous works, including the aforementioned Four Sittings in a Sinking House.

Dynamic fiction

These two Twine works are short and linear, but use the gamut of effects available to them well. These are good examples of the value interactivity can add.


Compound Fracture by Jimmy Evans (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 5 minutes]

The actual text in this game is scarce, as words would be when oxygen is scarce, yet it begins with a blasé This game embraces deceptively simple text effects, where links wriggle and shift out from your cursor. Fragments of thought flick by under a visibly lengthening bar, with the implicit understanding that when that bar runs out, so does your time. The thoughts that flicker past hint at past regrets, a family less than proud of you: the usual emotional baggage, but even there’s no time to pursue those thoughts. The writing, though sparse, has a stoic, matter of fact tone, from the first line: “you are going to die/okay”. In one of the endings, you can do nothing but watch the timer count down.

This is a shining example of real-time effects done right, adding as it does to something otherwise quite simple. (This might be easier played with a mouse.)


What to do When You’re Alone by Glass Rat Media (Twine; IFDB)

[May mention suicide, abusive relationships, self-loathing. Time to completion: 5 minutes]

What to Do describes a Google with sinister intentions – one which sees through the user’s seemingly innocuous searches to the doubt and fears behind it. Perhaps it is the intimacy of a search engine that fuels this idea, and the fact that we might address the search engine as we would a friend, and indeed, in the starting screen, the engine introduced itself by saying, “Don’t worry about keywords; just talk to us like we’re a friend.”. It’s the ultimate natural language processor, isn’t it? These games ask, “What if your ultimate reference, your personal librarian, was thinking, remembering, learning?”

While it may be superficially and mechanically similar to Josh Giesbrecht’s Awake, the intent of this game’s search engine is unambiguous. Awake’s search engine is wide-eyed with wonder. This is actively malicious – this was written for ECTOCOMP, after all.

The text effects are normally much maligned, but are used especially thoughtfully here, making What to Do work well as an interactive vignette of a sinister encounter.

Two reviews about exploring mental landscapes

I will be publishing review compilations of two (or three, if they’re really short) reviews at a time. These reviews have previously been published on IFDB, but here I try to group and compare thematically similar games.


All I do is Dream, by Megan Stevens (Twine; IFDB page here; play here)

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Cover image: someone playing the trumpet. We can only see their hands.

This game was written for IFComp 2016, where it placed 54th.

[Time to completion: 5-10 minutes]

This is a game about inertia. Every action you, the player, try to do is met with a refusal to do it: it’s too daunting, it’s too meaningless, it’s too disgusting…

Conceptually, it’s similar to Depression Quest, except that this game frames the PC’s life in relation to Evie, their – I can’t remember if it was explicitly said, but implicitly – the PC’s partner, or at least girlfriend. However, it’s very short, and it doesn’t give a huge amount to judge it by. I can see it being expanded out, though. Even if some readers might tire of inhabiting the body of a PC who’s tired all the time, the game as it stands makes me interested about, for instance, Evie.

I particularly liked this line: “You’re good at pushing things, mostly because you have to push yourself to do anything, whether it’s brushing your hair or getting a drink of water or going swimming with Evie. For that reason you’re good at pushing everything back in the closet.”

What really redeems it and lightens the tone of the game is how it ends on a hopeful note, which counterbalances the mood so far.


And we move from depression and ennui to grieving. They may be similar states of mind, perhaps, but grief, here, is given a very different treatment.

Eurydice (anonymous) (parser; IFDB page here)

This game was submitted to IFComp 2012, where it placed 2nd. It was also nominated for Best Story in the 2012 XYZZY awards.

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Cover image: an autumnal image of a lyre

In this midlength parser game, you, the PC, are mired in grief for the loss of Celine. Everything in the house, the initial setting, reminds the PC of Celine, down to the most trivial detail.

The setting, here, draws from the Greek myth, and is both used to elicit the PC’s memories and to create a sense of claustrophobia. Despite the social nature of funerals, the PC’s grief is so intensely private, that to share it with others would be an invasion, almost. The tone is bleak – actions are sometimes rebuffed with terse messages: “You’ve been better”; “You can’t remember anything important now”.

Unusual turns of phrase – the curve like that of a human spine; the baboonish chatter – make everyday settings seem strange, something highlighted with the reality-bending lyre, one of the most obvious elements borrowed from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The game allows for exploration and is generally forgiving, except for the endgame, in which the player’s sequence of actions is crucial.

 

ECTOCOMP post-mortem: A Friend to Light Your Way

Background: this game was submitted to ECTOCOMP 2016, where it placed 5th in the Le Grand Guignol section (which was for games which took more than 3 hours to produce) (5th, out of 5; it came last). 

This game is playable here


The idea of doing a game set at a Singapore-style funeral has, pardon the pun, haunted me for the longest time. The Chinese-style funerals I’ve been to have been swung between festive and sombre: it is most festive when the catered dinner has arrived and the guests are coming and going, and it is this atmosphere that has left the deepest impression on me. It was almost as if nothing had happened.

This game was originally meant to be a conversation-based game where you could wander around different tables and chat with the various guests at the funeral. Conversation was meant to reveal something unsettling about, say, the deceased or about your parents. As one does. This lent itself well to a world model, but wasn’t terribly easy to implement.

To get something out by the ECTOCOMP deadline, I changed the premise entirely, instead having the PC run around to get things – and what better reason to get things than to complete a ritual? If I ever get round to a post-comp version, I might put more thought into the ritual itself, though. This ritual seems too benign. The stakes are too low to properly consider it horror.

I enjoyed creating the appearance of the voice, messing about with CSS and such. The voice and the ending was inspired by The Uncle who works for Nintendo. Unfortunately, A Friend lacked a lot of Uncle’s tension: the stakes for not completing the ritual in time were pretty much non-existent, for one.

Still, though, it’s my first time creating such a world model in Twine, and I was glad to finally get this off my back.

Sigil Reader (Field) post-mortem

This was my first entry into the IFComp, and I’ll be honest: ideas for improvement proliferated as the comp went on and as I read reviews.

This game started as a purely exploratory game (like Staying Put), and Inform 7 remains one of my favourite tools for creating spaces. To get people to explore these spaces, though, I needed a story. The first thing that occurred to me was something along the lines of ‘something terribly wrong has happened here, you need to figure out what’, which… tends to be my go-to. For some reason.

A lot of what I learned from the reviews (and from my beta-testers) was basic storytelling and writing principles, and a few of these are highlighted below. There is much I have yet to learn.

The good:

  • setting
    • There are what I hoped would be distinctly Singaporean/Southeast Asian flavours to the setting (the calendar, the pickles), with an extra layer of weirdness (the rabbit skull).
    • There were comments that it had a definite sense of place, which was what I was angling for.
    • However, an office space suggests routine and mundanity – not great for a game! Sigil Reader didn’t allow players to do sufficiently un-office-like things (I’m thinking of Michael Gentry’s Little Blue Men and Arcane Intern (Unpaid)) to make the setting an efficient starting point for an urban fantasy story.
  • Juxtaposition of the urban mundane with the ~~magical~~ stuff.

The bad:

  • SPAG and technical errors
    • I should have done much more proofreading. That is all.
    • There were a handful of synonyms that I didn’t anticipate, and added on in an update early in the comp.
  • Links between objects the player needed to interact with and story progress
    • This game makes frequent use of events which were triggered by changes in stats (which themselves change when the player examines or does certain things). When these were announced to the player, they seemed incongruous: the event seemed unlinked to the action that triggered it.
    • I’d say this is due to poor signposting – a failure of communication.
  • Lawnmowering
    • Some players complained about having to go through every room and comb through objects, in a bit to find the one which would unlock the next part of the story. Again, this was a failure of signposting.
  • Ignoring the most novel thing about this game
    • The sigils, that is! Days before the deadline, this was only 10% implemented, and I realised that this would most likely involve designing a few new puzzles, something I struggle with.
  • It was hard to establish emotional stakes
    • The PC is emotionally very attached to Station 31, in no small part because the staff of the Station see each other all the time, but it was hard to communicate this to the player, especially since there were barely any NPCs, so the PC never gets to act out these relationships.
    • We meet the PC as a ghost, so at the start of the game the PC has no influence over the fate of our co-workers or the setting; the PC acts purely for themselves.
  • It was hard to signal progress to the player
    • I used a numeric indication in the status bar, showing three domains in which the player could grow in knowledge (namely: the PC’s relationship with their colleagues, the PC’s knowledge of the past and the PC’s knowledge of sigils.) I found this distracting, though, and didn’t want it to lead to lawnmowering. Not that removing the numerical progress markers changed things…

What I learned:

  • the importance of signposting – it took lots of ironing out from beta testers to figure out ‘blind spots’, or spots where I’d expected the player to read my mind. I fear it may have become too obvious in parts.
  • There is an extraordinary demand for puzzles in parser games. Puzzles are a way to gate story content, but here I did not intend for them to part of the appeal of the game; I wanted the appeal to be the revealing of memories. But then there were reviews from what were obviously experienced parser players who were unsatisfied with the simplicity of the puzzles.

Plans:

  • Sigil Reader (Field) suffered for its under implementation (despite everything!) so… either set parameters clearly, laying out what is unimportant to the player and testing, testing, testing.
  • Link important objects to events so that it’s clear how the player’s actions are affecting the game world and their progress
  • Letting the player >INSCRIBE and >INSPECT
    • I want the player to be able to play around with the sigils; the PC is, after all, the only one in the station who knows how to handle these with dexterity
  • Greater customisation of playthroughs depending on the PC
    • I liked the idea of having multiple, distinct set PCs to add flavour to the experience, but this wasn’t implemented much in the comp game.
  • Creating puzzles and making them flow is still something which unreasonably puzzles (ha) me. I’d like the puzzles to make sense in the context of the story. A bit of reading is in order…

TL;DR: made some silly mistakes, post-comp version will probably take much longer than expected!

Introcomp 2016: Bestiefone

By Rob and Mark (Meanwhile Netprov Studio) (Ink/Unity)

Game title screen
Enter a caption

Game’s title screen: winking emoji and game title over a closeup of someone’s hand opening a phone cover

The premise: your phone system’s started talking to you, and the chipper, more youthful Bestiefone is at loggerheads with prim, utilitarian SYSTEM. I am fond of this premise. The tone between the two is nicely contrasted.

Bestiefone is technically polished: it’s written in ink and Unity, and functions as a standalone app. There was some attempt at a skeuomorphic interface, though one is tempted to contrast this with A Normal Lost Phone, which really commits to the impression of a smartphone.  Bestiefone’s focus is not to simulate a phone. Bestiefone’s – and the in-game narrator’s – focus is on communication.

Game text - Don't buy, it User! They pretwnd that SYSTEM is the same as me. But it IS NOT! SYSTEM is just algomathed and datadriven. However whereas, I -- I am artificiamatically intelligenced!
Game screenshot

This game has not reached its most user-friendly state yet, though: there’s no way to fast-forward the text appearing (as with Ren’Py), and I don’t seem to be able to switch over to other windows once I start up the app. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if it’s intentional.

The narrator’s writing style may put some off. It harks back to a time where z’s replaced s’s with abandon. It sometimes feels over the top. The narrator is impulsive, mercurial, but lonely and ultimately well-meaning. For me, though, what made it hard to continue playing was the lack of direction and interaction. It seems ironic that you can’t interact with the one part of the App which wants to talk to you, where instead I was expecting some space for me to explore or interact in a more open-ended way.

Still, Bestiefone strikes me as being terribly good-natured and quite earnest. Given some direction and more for the player to do, I think this could be good.

Introcomp 2016: Astronomical Territories Of The Great British Empire

By G_G (Quest). This is an entry in Introcomp 2016, a competition focusing on game introductions. I participated last year.

Written in Quest, this is set in London, and begins on the banks of the Thames. There are nods at a colonial empire, and something about stars. Or, more precisely, a “clouded planet”.

I’ll just say it up front: the ending is far, far too abrupt. There is no inkling of plot, barely a whisper of setting. And that’s a problem in Introcomp, because to get the reader invested in the story, you’ve got to make them care about the situation or the characters, and there’s too little in this introduction to do either.

As I slowly realised during my own experience in Introcomp 2015, setting alone will not work. Setting is passive; it is characters – people – which bring it to life.

I accept that I may well have missed some way to unlock further story; I will say that my play through ended when I decided whether I wanted to go to Trafalgar Square or the Houses of Parliament. However, some things I’d have liked to see in this game in general are:

Elaboration about the setting, particularly addressing the hook in the title about astronomical territories. This is a great hook. While we’ve seen plenty of games – heck, we’ve seen plenty of fiction – set in London in its various guises, a British empire which controls planets in outer space? Steampunk? Oh, yes, please!

Some explanation of the narrator. In some games, figuring out who the narrator is is part of the game. But here, there was precious little sense of direction or purpose without anything like that.

I’m a sucker for settings like these, don’t get me wrong, and I usually enjoy walking around fictional London as much as I do the real London. But there’s very little to work off here for me to really say I want more.

Even Cowgirls Bleed

By Christine Love. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 5-10 minutes

It's the usual story. You're a big city girl with a closet full of fancy dresses but not a whole lot of sense, and lately all you've wanted to do is trade in your lonely winters for some real adventure. Well, consarn just wanting, you say!
Screenshot of first screen

You are a city girl, seeking thrills and spills out West. You gather your petticoats, get yourself a gun, and get on the next coach.

Turns out, though, that being out West isn’t quite what you imagined…

This game makes extensive use of mouseover effects (this is replaced by the normal touch on mobile), which makes moving through the story very fast. Your only interaction with NPCs and objects is to shoot them, and (on PC at least) having mouseover replace clicks means that when you, the player, interact with anything by touching it, you destroy or maim it. There’s a moment where this is especially brilliantly handled, where you can only ever destroy, regardless of your best intentions.

The writing is witty and self-aware. The PC swaggers into a bar, only to be snubbed by the bartender for ordering a bourbon on the rocks; the PC’s bravado has her shooting everything in sight, but this gets her told off by the woman she’s fixed her eyes on.

The story’s surreal overtones are buoyed by the PC’s initial idealism – there’s something in shooting everything in sight which doesn’t strike true for me – so your mileage may vary. I’m sure there’s something deeper to it, but, for now, I really just see it as a strange riff on tropes in Westerns.

Eclosion

By Buster Hudson. (Twine; IFDB; download to play)

Time to completion: 10-15 minutes (your mileage may vary)

Three cycles since fecundation. The pharates can taste our thoughts. Their pupal minds yearn for mothers’ milk.

You are sending commands to a parasitic, insectile entity, and there are a number of steps it must complete before it can successfully parasitise the host. Your task, then, is to figure out the correct order for the steps. By turns icky and sinister, Eclosion fits well in the Ectocomp

The puzzle is aided by informative failure messages, but even then, I took many turns to figure out a vaguely correct sequence. There is no question of error.

The writing in this game is deliberately wielded as well: the language is florid, like that favoured by Lovecraft, but terse; a tally of the casualties (or the pharates you fail to guide to eclosion) reminds you of the consequences of your clumsiness. This is body horror the way I like it.