Photograph: A Portrait of Reflection

By Steve Evans (Parser; IFDB)

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(Cover art: a square framed photo of an ankh)

Photograph is a melancholic, sometimes dark, walk down memory lane. It is a highly story-driven game; playing it fleshes out the PC as a person with lots of past regrets

The memories that the PC recounts to us, the reader, are all about his past relationships, yet the PC is crushingly alone, both physically and emotionally. The PC’s memories are frequently tinged with regret, yet the narrator’s resigned tone kept the game from sinking into navel-gazing angst. I was also very pleased at the way in which the PC’s memories took on weight in the ‘real’ world.

Photograph is a more open-ended work of IF, in that you can explore the PC’s memories in any order and revisit them at any time, though certain events must be triggered to progress in the story.

Well-characterised, contemplative and well-implemented, it’s no surprise Photograph did as well as it did in the IFComp and XYZZY awards.

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Two small hypertext games

First up, Relic, by Caelyn Sandel (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Set in Sandel’s New Washington setting, Orianna, a hunter of antiques, chances upon a rare find – but Silas, her housemate and colleague, is sceptical. But soon, strange things start happening.

Relic is a fine psychological horror short story with a big twist at the end. Sandel’s writing is matter-of-fact, practical, but she has a great attention for detail and a fine grasp of pace. Although Relic is unrelentingly linear, its format as a Twine game instead of a piece of conventional linear writing allows each scene to be presented in isolation. It isn’t the perfect piece to demonstrate the advantages of dynamic fiction or a game format to deliver a linear story, but Relic is a fine example of Sandel’s writing prowess.


Next, A Gift for Mother by Natalie Zed (Texture; IFDB; play here)

This was made in the newly released platform Texture, created by Juhana Leinonen and Jim Munroe. This system enables players to drag and drop verbs, creating hypertext games which are uniquely suited for mobile devices. The system is still in alpha/beta, having been released late last year, but is available for tinkering (http://texturewriter.com/alpha/) (caution: the site stores stories within your browser’s local memory – there doesn’t yet seem to be a way to download the story format, only the resulting HTML.)

Here, Zed uses the different verbs as a means for creating story branches. You are a commissary of Mother, gathering data from within your host. You can sense your host’s vital signs, but, likewise, your every movement is detectible to your host. The more data you collect, the more you risk detection… and expulsion.

A Gift for Mother uses an elegant dichotomy to create branching, though I felt it didn’t quite bring out the full possibilities of Texture. It would have been great if the same verb could have applied to multiple objects, but as it stands, A Gift for Mother is a striking story written from a parasite’s point of view.

Reset

By Autumn Nicole Bradley (Twine; IFDB; play here; play time: ~20 minutes)

In a cyberpunk world where you are inextricably linked to implants, where your memories aren’t just in your brain, someone’s meddled with your implanted hardware, and the doctors had to do a soft reset. In the process, they damaged quite a lot of hardware and took away a big part of your ‘dry’ memory. You are a blank slate now.

[This game is about a D/S relationship.]

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this. Reset is an exploration of relationships in a world where you can surrender all control, physically and mentally. Underlining the inseparability of the PC’s implants and the PC, Reset uses the second person cleverly – there is a ‘metal-you’, a ‘you-you’ and a ‘body-you’ – bringing into question what identity means, in this universe. What does it mean when ‘body-you’, your physical self, remembers things which ‘you-you’ doesn’t? Are your feelings just as valid when only one aspect of your identity derives pleasure from them?

Bradley delivers the story brilliantly. One bit which was particularly excellent was the description of the PC surrendering their control to Alison – the author brought out the interactions between the different aspects of the PC’s personality very well. The story was also extraordinarily well-constructed. Recommended.

 

Out West

By veoviscool12. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Cover art: 8-bit rendering of a sunset)

You’re a hardened bounty hunter, the toughest this side of town, and you’re riding in the sunset when you see a figure. And that rarely means good news.

The writing in Out West is elegant and spare, which suited the setting. I thought there was a little too much reflection- thoughts which could be

This game was oddly coy with the action. Every time action is promised, there are numerous little pacing devices to distance the player from the shoot-enemy-and-move-on action that one might expect from a Western. No, instead of letting you blast enemies, it takes a more reflective pace, reminding you of Ma’s sayings. The contemplative air felt at odds with the sense of urgency that the game was trying to create, though it worked in the later half.

Out West features lovely pixel art and adds to the tone of the story. The game is well-thought out and I enjoyed the writing. It certainly gives a nice dark slant to the classic Western setting, but there were things that irked me, which I can’t discuss without spoilers. Continue reading “Out West”

Hypnagogue

By Mitch Alexander. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

You wake up. Something in your room is different. You could sleep, yes, or you could try and find out what it is.

At once a riff on the theme of ‘sleepless in your bedroom’ and an exploration of dream-spaces, Hypnagogue presumably derives its name from ‘hypnagogic’ – the fugue state between sleep and wakefulness. The spaces you explore and look in on are likewise the spaces between sleep and wakefulness, as you catch glimpses of people’s bedrooms. The author provides tantalising details of these spaces, but these are only ever glimpses. The author delights in giving strange bits of story, but the writing overall felt unfocused. Hypnagogue felt like it was trying to make a point, but I couldn’t figure out what it might be referring to. Maybe there is no real-life analogue and I’m overthinking it.

That said, Hypnagogue is generally a well-written expedition through some very strange spaces. This is a game in which the setting is more of a character than the PC: you are merely the means to explore it.

weird tape in the mail

By Adam Dickinson (@angrygeometry). (Twine; IFDB; play here)

weird tape in the mail was highlighted by Porpentine in her interview with Emily Short as featuring lots of art and ‘piss ethos’, so of course I had to check it out. This game features .gifs and animations with flashing effects.

You found a tape at your door last night. Your uncle is the only one who has a tape machine.

One of the most striking features about this game is the all-lowercase, no-punctuation, almost conversational or stream-of-consciousness writing style, similar to some of Porpentine’s work, which could be dubbed ‘flattened affect’. It suggests the weariness that comes with routine and less-than-pleasant living conditions. The writing sometimes feels rough – it wasn’t written necessarily to be pleasing on the ear – but definitely not without thought. The art adds to the sense of tiredness with the same hand-drawn (or mouse-drawn, perhaps), scribbly quality of Nekra Psaria.

The game hints at consumerism and the idea of worth vs. value as a theme, but this was never explored beyond allusions and exaggerated statements. I found this a pity! It could have served as a backbone to the ideas floating around in the game.

weird tape in the mail is a strange, strange game, verging on hallucinatory, but it never really delved into any one idea far enough to use the strangeness to its advantage.

A Bucket Filled with Sand

By A C Godliman. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

A Bucket Filled with Sand is a short adventure in building a city. In a hundred years a dragon will come, but for now, you start with the simplest of building materials: a bucket filled with sand.

This game presents simple binary choices, each of which build up your sand-kingdom. You can choose between war or negotiation; between building trust and pre-empting treachery. I found it interesting how the writing maintained the tone of detached resignation throughout – even the expansion of your empire is never truly counted as a victory, but rather an opportunity for more problems to arise.

What really makes the game is its illustrations. They give a visual portrayal of your budding kingdom, as it grows from just one castle to a veritable empire. The arrival of the dragon also served as a rather effective pacing device, giving the story a sure structure, and tying the story up at the end rather neatly.

One grouse – and my main one – is that there are lots of typos. Given that some thought appears to have been put into this, it just feels so out of place. Otherwise, though, A Bucket Filled with Sand is a melancholic, highly branching game which touches on the impermanence of human endeavours.

Inyo Dissonance

By Mary Herring. (Twine; play here)

You start as Kumi dies. As she’s brought into a kind of purgatory, two mysterious figures appear; they bring her through a series of decision-making points to decide if she should be allowed to carry on living or not.

The decisions that Kumi is asked to make mainly take the form of moral decisions – along the lines of how you should live your life – though the impact this could have had was lessened by the binary nature of the dilemmas presented. At each decision-making point, only one of the answers led to progress in the story, implying that there was only one morally acceptable answer. Yet, in real life, it is possible to find moral and ethical justifications for multiple approaches to the same dilemma. This quiz-style story structure (where branches are very quickly pruned off with death) prevents Inyo Dissonance from delving into a more nuanced view of moral/ethical decision-making.

The NPCs, the guides and arbitrators of Kumi’s fate in the afterlife, could have been the stars of the show. There was potential, there. They seem to be cast as the good guy and bad guy, reminding me of Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens, but neither seem to be particularly strong characters.

One thing that really bugged me – in terms of the technical aspect of the writing – was the narrator/PC. The PC isn’t Kumi, because Kumi is always referred to in the third person while the PC is addressed directly. So who’s the PC? How are you related to Kumi, and why is her fate and life in your hands? It’s never addressed.

Inyo had some interesting ideas at its core, but it was marred by the cosmetic – the spelling mistakes – and the way the story was delivered.

Starry Seeksorrow

By Caleb Wilson (as Ayla Rose) (Parser; IFDB)

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(Cover art: pale green, cabbage-like representation of the damage caused by a weevil)

Klara has fallen asleep in her parents’ charmed garden – no, not asleep – but catatonic. This is surely the work of an enemy sorcerer! As one of the dolls enchanted to guard and protect Klara, it is your duty to find you what’s wrong and reverse it.

Starry Seeksorrow is delightfully charming in its writing – the flora featured are given descriptive, sometimes whimsical names linked to their function (reminding me of Caelyn Sandel’s Seeds and Solutions). Yet, there’s a sinister overtone: a good number of the plants you encounter are harmful. I would have loved to explore the flowers’ abilities further, and explored the different ways they could be used, but that is likely beyond the remit of this game.

The puzzles in Starry Seeksorrow are well-hinted, with the systems behind the puzzles behaving consistently. But the memories that the PC carries add a much greater emotional depth to the story, fleshing the story out to something that could be placed in a wider fictional world, as well as shaping the setting as a result of its creators’ personalities and pasts, instead of being merely ‘magical cute garden’.

Starry Seeksorrow doesn’t play with the parser as much as in Wilson’s other works (I’m thinking of The Northnorth Passage (IFDB) and Lime Ergot (IFDB), specifically), but it’s nonetheless a great piece of writing.