Spring Thing 2017: brevity quest

By Chris Longhurst. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: two white stick figures on a black background, one with a pole, one with a sword

A RPG in the barest sense of the word. You choose a class. You encounter characters and go places, each narrated within the space of one line. The brevity of each passage belies a very broadly branching decision tree. In fact, given how widely stories could diverge, I found the narration of your choices in the end to be a nice touch. brevity quest makes liberal use of familiar tropes and creatures, making the reader’s imagination take up most of the storytelling slack.

Several games share the text-sparse, location-based mould. A few which come to mind: The Tiniest Room, vale of singing metals or even burning temples.

What makes these worth having a look at are how they simplify foreign terrains, diplomatic moves and combat into the sparse language they use. I found pleasant small surprises, at times, when the game (brevity quest, but the others as well) showed me that it wasn’t just branching blindly – it remembered the decisions that I made. Of course, this is technically very easy to do, but satisfying nonetheless.

Worth playing if you want a time cave RPG with sparse prose.

Four Sittings in a Sinking House

By Bruno Dias, entered in ECTOCOMP 2016. (Ink; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes; this game doesn’t work in Google Chrome]

Right. Yeah. The whole island was sinking, really. I say island because that’s the official term, but if we’re being honest it was more like a pretentious sandbar.

On a house on this sinking island, you perform sittings to uncover memories and, by so doing, figure out what went on in the house. Four candles flicker in the background of your choices, each one going out as you perform a sitting.

In this self-described “barroom back fable”, the narrator is cynical, jaded. I got the sense that they, like the titular house, has put their glory days behind them, though having never played into cheap dreams peddled by cons,

You can perform tasks in roughly any order, but you have to uncover all available bits of memory to really figure out what’s at the heart of this house. Not to give away the plot, but what’s happening in the sinking house reflects the island itself: a place that free market forces took over, yet was chewed up and discarded when it lost its value.

Bruno’s writing belies a keen eye for detail. The house’s fallen state shows through its faded, garish fittings; the hypocrisy of the promises that were sold along with the house, in its sterility. Four Sittings is a satisfying, polished tale of urban magic, with the same sort of seriousness as, say, American Gods.

Spring Thing 2017: Niney

I’ve missed the entire Spring Thing season for examinations, so I now belatedly arrive at some reviews.


Niney by Daniel Spitz (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Niney’s main mechanic is simple: you are a passenger on this mysterious train, destination unknown, and you must assume different roles for the sake of your fellow passengers. You are all things and none of them.

I found Niney’s language intriguing; the identities that the PC assumes are frequently phrased in terms of postures – “the one who gazes ahead”, say – or attitudes – “the one who is weak”. Assuming these postures doesn’t just change how NPCs respond to the PC, but even the PC’s internal state.

The characters in this game are loosely sketched, like a quick and dirty pencil drawing, as is the PC. The PC is truly a blank slate, ignored by NPCs unless they are somehow relevant, having barely any persistent character traits. This works if you view the game as an allegory, which ties in with the dream sequences.

I felt that parser worked well here, allowing the author to hide how the player’s abilities change with scenes.

However, what is demanded of you is not always clear; I found myself force-fitting identities more than once. The language also tends toward the flowery, especially in its descriptions of emotions. Greater succinctness and more distinctive imagery could make Niney really stand out.

If you enjoyed the metaphor-wrangling here, you might like Simon Christiansen’s Patanoir (IFDB; Steam), which likewise takes metaphors literally, but with a stronger framing story.

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.

 

Introcomp 2016: Bestiefone

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

Game title screen
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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.