Two tiny utopias

The TinyUtopias jam is a very informal game jam, first mooted by Emily Short in a Twitter conversation two weeks ago. Cat Manning writes about it here. It was envisioned as a jam for very short games which encapsulate a utopia – a world which was, if not perfect, then better. The existing games, if listed on IFDB, can be found here, and I will say here that I, too, submitted the morning after to the jam.


The Shape of Our Container is by Rocketnia. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

The Shape of Our Container is a peaceful, conversation-led game about lying in the grass with your loved one. Similar to the other tiny utopias, there is a broad sense of forgiveness and peace. Structure-wise, the game has a broadly branching time-cave structure, allowing large variations between play-throughs. This gives the impression of living many parallel lives, of the impression of time passing.

Container is definitely polished and has fairly high replay value. Short, tender and intimate.


Fridgetopia is by Mathbrush. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Fridgetopia has been described by the author as “mechanically utopian”, in that it doesn’t necessarily sketch out a utopia per se: there is not much world-building here. But this is not a slight against the game. Rather than describe your interactions with a specific space or time, Fridgetopia instead gives you tools with which you can create your own world, to a certain extent.

Fridgetopia is very short, and perhaps not very polished. It reads as much as a coding exercise (albeit an interesting one) as a game, but it does hide at least one secret, which… let’s just say it deserves the label of ‘fridge horror’. Very clever.

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Kotodama

By Aidan Doyle. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: the kanji characters for ‘kotodama’

Tokyo has been hit by a poetry outbreak. You, a robot, have been sent to deal with it.

Kotodama is set in a world in which poetry is akin to a contagious disease, and that shapes much of the world-building. This much is evident from the first line:

The lobby of the Tokyo Skypoem is filled with panicked humans, their faces scarred by unbridled metaphor. Paramedics carry stretchers bearing limerick-riddled corpses and haiku-exposed skeletons.

The writing sparkles with wit, and the game’s use of metaphor (that is, making it have literal consequences) called to mind Patanoir. Kotodama also gives a welcome depth to the world-building by giving a nod to familiar narratives such as racism or the role of immigrants. This seems to have some link to the title: according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which the game quotes, the concept of ‘kotodama’ applies especially to Japanese in its ‘purest’ form – that is, the language without any loan words – yet, definitions of what counted as ‘pure’ varied over the years.

Kotodama is relatively short, but is highly polished (I found the Poetry Dojo to be a stroke of genius) and very cleverly written. Highly recommended.

Ruiness

By Porpentine. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: a nebula in shades of purple and blue

You are a traveller – whether you be scavenger or dustrunner – and, on your steed, you traverse the hostile lands.

Ruiness is set in what I term ‘dystopian wilderness’: not quite post-apocalyptic, but barren, harsh, downright caustic environments. The prose is purple and abstract; the story typically abstruse. The florid prose thrums with purpose, though: each place has a distinct climate and role, and the different races or roles you can assume remain thematically consistent.

This game has all the hallmarks of a Porpentine game, but what I found the most interesting was the map/travel system. You travel by typing in your destination in a text field. Whilst in new locations, you discover new names, and the cities you have discovered are mapped out on a chart you carry. This allows for Easter eggs, for openness, for a sense of discovery.

Ruiness is a mid-length confection of a game which affords slightly different perspectives with different characters. The travel system is definitely worth having a look at.

Tapes

By Marras (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[This game depicts (pixellated) nudity and sex.]

Tapes is a linear work about, as the author states, sex and disability. At its centre, though, it is a close-up look into a moment of intimacy. Both characters are shown naked in the game art and they hug-wrestle, but this is not sexual intimacy. This is emotional intimacy: about showing vulnerability to a loved one.

The exact disability from which the PC suffers is never really stated, but from context, we gather that the PC experiences painful muscle spasms which are relieved by kinesiology tape. Is the name important, though?

The sole two reviewers on IFDB (as of this writing) express their distaste at the linearity of this game, but it might be worth having a think on Linear IF, or dynamic fiction, is becoming increasingly accepted. Dynamic fiction borrows the structures and conventions (e.g. second person narrative, platforms) of branching IF to enhance storytelling, either through visual text effects, or by inviting the player to participate in revealing the story step by step. Tapes veers toward the latter, with the game art in each passage illustrating the dialogue.

Tapes is a sweet, peaceful vignette of an intimate moment. Play if you like linear, dialogue-driven scenes and 8-bit art.

The Role of Music in Your Life

By Five Dials, in collaboration with Present Plus. (Custom CYOA; IFDB; play here)

The Role of Music in Your Life is, on first glance, an odd thing: a questionnaire? Seriously? Is this really IF?

The Role of Music in Your Life expands out into a dialogue-driven, minimal story about an anxious mother and her kid. The character development is handled deftly, especially when the kid in question speaks up, forming a good foil to his mother’s perspective. Telling this story through just dialogue raised the possibility of an unreliable narrator, which gave a sinister edge to the mother’s lines.

I was disappointed to find that, despite the choices, the story doesn’t actually branch. It would have been satisfying, or at least fun, to see how different answers to the personality quiz-type questions affected how the mother treated the PC. Nonetheless, this minimal piece of CYOA has some very clever writing and a delicious use of unreliable narrator. I enjoyed it.

Get Lost!

By S. Woodson. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: ink drawing of a fairy with butterfly wings against a spiderweb on a green background

This game was originally commissioned for Now Play This, part of the London Games Festival, which I attended and wrote about briefly here.

You are a suburban teen and you’re tired of your boring, non-magical, human life. Maybe if you go out into the woods where the faeries roam, you can join them – maybe… Of course, that depends on whether they’d want you or not.

Like Beware the Faerie Food You Eat, Get Lost! is a riff on fairy-related tropes, but where BtFFYE is grim, Get Lost! is a merry romp through encounters with jaded, ill-tempered fae. The protagonist’s idealistic conceptions of the fae, combined with a comprehensive knowledge of folklore, is quickly frustrated by the ironically mundane nature of the fae themselves.

Woodson’s writing sparkles with life, and the broadly branching game structure makes replay richly rewarding. This game is quite short – it took me about 15 minutes to play it through once – so it should make for excellent lunchtime play.

Spring Thing 2016: Sisters of Claro Largo, Shipwrecked

By David T. Marchand (IFDB; Twine; play here)

Spring Thing (or Fall Fooferall) is upon us! This year boasts a dizzying diversity of styles and stories, with some reaching Imaginary Game Jam levels of imagination. You can find all the games here.


When you escaped, you were childless. Now, away from the City and its cells, you have two daughters, both special and peculiar in their own ways. Their stories will shape the future of Claro Largo, and who knows what else?

The narrator in this game is pretty much invisible, compared to what the titular sisters do (and end up doing). The story is grim, melancholic; the village setting suggests claustrophobia, despite its promise of freedom. To me, this called to mind stories such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin, or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (Of course, these comparisons are far from perfect, though they share similar tones and atmospheres.)

This game uses telescopic text (similar to what this tool does) to slowly reveal the story. This gimmick is purely mechanical (technically, there’s nothing really to stop this being a linear story), but the order in which text is presented makes clear the conceptual links, the story’s chronological order. Sisters is very simple, but tells a good story. One playthrough took me about 15 minutes.


Shipwrecked is a very short game by Andrew G. Schneider (Twine; IFDB; play here), who also wrote Nocked! in this year’s Spring Thing.

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Cover art: desert background against a blue sky

The premise is that you’re annotating and shaping the journal of a sailor marooned in the Endless Desert. The story is quite broadly branching, with some branches longer than the others. The writing is more flowery than one might expect from a desert journal, but it allows for contrast with different writing styles, which is very much in line with the theme. I found the ending bit to balance out the floweriness of the earlier parts, which was a nice twist.

Ironically, the prose still bears traces of not having been edited, however, with sentences such as “A fetching the lady pirate…”. I’m… not sure if this was intentional. If it was, then that is pretty inspired.

I admit that I took a while to warm to Shipwrecked, especially with the writing style. I liked where it went with the editor, though, and actually found myself wanting a more substantial story, rather than the meandering storyline I found here.

Spring Thing 2016: Tangaroa Deep

By Astrid Dalmady. (IFDB; Twine; play here)

Some background: Spring Thing (or Fall Fooferall) is upon us! This year boasts a dizzying diversity of styles and stories, with some reaching Imaginary Game Jam levels of imagination. You can find all the games here.


We know more about space than we do about the ocean.
Isn’t it time to start changing that?

In Tangaroa Deep, you are a marine biologist going down to document creatures of the deep in SS Tangaroa. The deeper you go, the stranger these creatures become. After all, there is so much we don’t know about the deep sea.

The PC’s only link with the outside world is their connection with Jackie, their research partner, and their banter is a delightful foil to the creatures living down below, which get weirder and weirder. Like parser IF, the world model is location-based, which means story branching is dependent on where you move, meshing wonderfully with the overall story.

Several visual features illustrate atmospheric changes as the PC goes further and further down. The air meter ticks down. The background deepens from aqua to black. The description of creatures gets weirder and weirder. Where Dalmady’s writing shines, I think, is in the late game, if you choose to go as deep as you can.

Recommended.

Spring Thing 2016: Rough Draft

By Erica Kleinman (IFDB; Ren’Py)

Spring Thing (or Fall Fooferall) is upon us! This year boasts a dizzying diversity of styles and stories, with some reaching Imaginary Game Jam levels of imagination. You can find all the games here.


In Rough Draft, you’re helping Denise, a writer suffering from writer’s block, decide the course of her story, a fairly generic fantasy-type story. At some points, though, the narrator decides that the story can go no further; you, as invisible editor, can go back and get her to rewrite at a certain decision-making point. It takes the concept of the meta-writing game and really runs with it.

What makes this game unusual is being able to visualise the story structure (below). I liked how information from one rejected branch unlocked decisions in other branches – a reflection, perhaps, of how brainstorming sparks off ideas, even if the original ideas never do make it into the final product.

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Screenshot of node map in Rough Draft

Story branches are quickly pruned off, which means that players must do a bit of lawn-mowering (this is not necessarily meant as a harsh critique, goodness knows I’m guilty of that myself) to find the ‘right’ story branch that allows progress. It would have been great to be able to complete the story using a variety of ways – that, after all, is the power of the imagination.

It’s a pity that the meta-story (the fantasy story the player helps to write) is relatively bland. The fantasy story seems to follow stock tropes and template-like encounters; dialogue sometimes feels stilted. Nonetheless, it is evident that the author has spent much effort on this – the screens which show the story in progress are in reality separate images, as is the story map – and its implementation of this idea, which has so often been talked about, is laudable.

Now Play This 2016

I went over to Somerset House today to look at the exhibition at Now Play This, an event which, as I understand it, is part of London Games Festival. There were lots of interesting ideas and implementations, big and small.

Some notable things I saw:

I spent more time than intended playing Daniel Linssen’s Wibble Wobble. It’s your usual platformer-type game, but with a constantly shifting ground, so that what is safe sometimes becomes unsafe, that waiting too long in the same place can kill you.

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I hugely enjoyed the Darkroom, which played with light and shadow. Pippin Barr’s Game ideas were there, as was Larklamp. This was a two-player game with lovely world-building (that’s not just a lantern, that’s a glimmerlamp, and it wants to tell you things…). The lantern – whose slides can be changed out – forms the board, and rotating the lantern allows you to project different patterns of shadows. The gamemasters (or facilitators) tied the whole thing together, by giving meaning to the pieces and their patterns.

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Two games played with the idea of different ways of marking your achievements: Action Painting Pro by Ian McLarty and Inks by State of Play. Both had similar ideas: your movements are represented as paint streaks, which you can then view after the game is over. I didn’t get to play with Inks (there was a kid absolutely killing it) but Action Painting Pro was surprisingly addictive.


A special mention for Blackbar by Neven Mrgan & James Moore, a fill-in-the-blanks epistolary game set in a dystopia. As dystopias go, this checks the Stepford Wives-esque enforced cheeriness and the omniscient police tickboxes, but the idea was definitely very interesting. Certain words in the letters you read are censored, and you have to guess what those words are. I guess one way Blackbar could have been better was rewarding player effort. Some of the words that were blacked out were relatively innocuous (so why were they censored again?), and some were terribly hard to guess. Even then, I got into the story quite quickly and would have played more if I hadn’t gotten stuck.

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In the same room as the IF were books on game design and otherwise related to games – Charles Stross’s Halting State was there (!), as was one of Anna Anthropy’s books. They’d set it up with cushions and nice cushy places to curl up and read or play board games.

There was also a very NSFW game, Cobra Club by Robert Yang, in which you’re sending, well, nudes to random internet strangers, with a customisable avatar. It seems to involve guessing what the stranger wants and adjusting the avatar’s body accordingly. People were generally amused.