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.

XYZZY nominee: Hana Feels

By Gavin Inglis (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 15-25 minutes

[This game contains discussions of self-harm/self-mutilation. Please exercise discretion.]

Hana has been acting unlike herself lately. Can you find out why?

We, the player, see Hana’s feelings through the eyes of four different people. Each is meant to play a supportive role in her life, but their different personalities means that their support can express itself in very different ways. The catch: the only thing you can control is what other people say to Hana. Some of the NPCs would have been self-centred had we only been able to see from Hana’s point of view, but being able to play through their perspectives – and seeing their doubts and awkwardness – made them much more sympathetic, even when they say things which would be frankly hurtful.

Hana’s journal entries provide immediate feedback about your conversational choices. I found myself wondering how I could optimise outcomes for Hana – or, indeed, if it was even possible. But there’s something to this, isn’t there? No matter our intentions, our words of comfort can so easily be interpreted in the exact opposite of what we mean.

Depending on the branch you end up getting, the overall tone of Hana Feels could be either cautiously optimistic or achingly sad. Despite occasionally getting to experience Hana’s perspective, she remains distant; we can only ever reach her indirectly, through the filter of other people.

Hana has been nominated for Best NPC in the XYZZY awards, a fact which delights me, even if I’m never really sure what makes an NPC ‘good’. The most I can say, though, is that the emotional investment the PCs pay into their interactions with Hana pays off. Each character reacts believably and sensitively to what the other says. A comparable game would be Hannah Powell-Smith’s Thanksgiving or Aquarium, in which conversation is fraught and intricate as a dance.

Hana Feels ultimately deals with some weighty stuff – Hana, after all, has to deal with a lot and she doesn’t always do this in a healthy way – but there are areas of levity, and perhaps even hope.

13 Minutes of Light

By Jod (Ren’Py; IFDB)

viewgame.jpg
Splash screen: the title of the game on a maroon background

Time to completion: 20-30 minutes

You play Jack, whose girlfriend Elizabeth has left for Mars for a position teaching anthropology. Constrained by cost, the only means of communication you have with her are the letters, and each takes three months to arrive. Three months is a long time…

The gameplay reminded me of First Draft of the Revolution, with the epistolary format and the way branching is achieved. 13 Minutes of Light introduces a wider story arc of political unrest and social inequality to contextualise the relationship, contrasting the content of the letters with snippets from a mockup of Reddit’s /r/mars.

I particularly liked Elizabeth’s development from anthropology graduate to (Spoiler – click to show). This game also plays on the uncertainty and tension that comes with such a restricted form of communication as letters: how do you know what the other party really means?

There are some bits which could have been improved to make 13 Minutes of Light more enjoyable, one of which was a feedback system I didn’t understand. The game tells you which parts of the letter go off well, which don’t and which are mysteriously relevant to the story. This felt out of place with the theme, given that we are told (repeatedly) how long letters take to be delivered – and whose point of view are these from, anyway?

13 Minutes of Light could maybe stand to be aesthetically more pleasing, but it still represents a solid example of epistolary branching IF.

The Domovoi

By Kevin Snow (Twine; IFDB)

viewgame.png
Cover art: view from the inside of a dark hut

Your friend is a storyteller, and she’s polishing her latest work about a domovoi, or protective house spirit, lingering in a guttered hut. You are her audience.

The Domovoi is a game about storytelling. Like Whom the Telling Changed, you get to influence events in the story, but where the PC works against an antagonist in Whom the Telling Changed, here the story is a collaborative work. Your friend may express doubt or satisfaction at your choice, and the PC’s perspective outside of the story in the making allows for in-universe commentary. The unnamed NPC in Domovoi has her own views, after all, and if you suggest something with which she disagrees, she will probably slant the story to include that, but make her feelings known.

This game is also a pleasure to play, not least because it is styled attractively. Like Beneath Floes, it features illustrations that set the mood and whose colour schemes demarcate changes in perspective.

Perhaps true to oral tradition, the story you help to tell can vary between play-throughs, depending on the choices you make. The game didn’t dwell on the meta aspect much, though, focusing instead on the meat of the story.

In summary: The Domovoi is an introspective work which taps into Slavic folklore, with a lively NPC and a story within a story. Recommended, if nothing else than for its luscious illustrations and sound effects.

Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai

By Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez (Twine; IFDB; play here)

viewgame.jpg
Cover art: sepia-tinted close-up of a smiling woman with coiffed hair, head on her hand

Evita Sempai centres around one woman’s adoration/love for Eva Perón, who was the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. It is told in a series of episodes from the narrator’s perspective, centred around encounters with Perón.

This game has social relationships at its core, but where other games allow us to manipulate our position in those relationships, the narrator of Evita Sempai already has a predefined position in her social circle. Dropping the player in all these relationships in medias res felt a little disorienting at first, but it also helped to flesh out a fully-formed protagonist who was not only in love with Eva Perón, but also a sister, daughter and breadwinner.

I went into this game without any knowledge of who Eva Perón was, but it’s not strictly necessary. Context will certainly explain the later events in this game, and perhaps explain other NPCs’ reactions to the titular first lady.

I found the narrator’s relationships with NPCs difficult to follow initially, but this is really a minor quibble. Evita Sempai is neatly styled, with changing backgrounds highlighting the transitions between sections.

I am a sucker for local detail and this game does a nicely subtle job of it, even though (to my memory) city and place names are almost never mentioned. Evita Sempai explores a real-life setting not often found in IF, which is definitely something I’d like to see more of.

The Warbler’s Nest

By Jason McIntosh (Parser; IFDB)

viewgame.jpg
Cover art: a bank of reeds on a sunny day

Time to completion: 15-20 minutes

You are searching amongst the reeds for eggshells. If you believe the tailor, these are what you need to take back what is yours.

The Warbler’s Nest doesn’t immediately give up its story, but rather reveals it both through cutscenes and through environmental detail. This is aided by the mechanic, which is basically a treasure hunt. Given that this game is rather short, though, to reveal more about the story would spoil it. All I will say is that this game taps on faerie folklore and rituals related to them. It follows the interpretation of faerie folk as being intensely selfish yet bound by immoveable, arcane rules, which gives a quietly sinister air to the game as a whole.

Overall: understated horror is one of my favourite genres, and I really like how The Warbler’s Nest handled that. This is a gem of a short story, well worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to play.

You’re Tiny People. Can You Open The Fridge And Get The Lemon?

By Clickhole. (Custom CYOA; IFDB; play here)

viewgame.jpg
Cover art: a tiny hand sticking out from a white grating

Clickhole has built a reputation for prolificacy, having released 20 games in 2015 alone. Their games are usually absurd and light-hearted. Their games usually have long titles which presents its central premise. Then again, I have not played many of Clickhole’s games, so I shouldn’t really generalise like that…

In Tiny People, you play a… group (swarm?) of tiny people, navigating someone’s apartment. At your size, everything is huge. How will you get to the lemon? And what’s Music Duck doing there?

Tiny People favours photos over textual room descriptions to illustrate the environment, which was really a welcome change to the usual Clickhole house style of generic stock images. It also features an especially location-based world model, even if it mixed cardinal directions with relative directions (you can go leftward and east in this game).

The perspective brings to mind other games with smaller-than-human PCs – A Day for Soft Food and Snack Time in particular. The close-up photos of everyday objects from a non-human perspective remind me of Mateusz Skutnik’s 10 Gnomes series.

The central premise (i.e. the fact that you, the PC, appear to be a swarm of tiny people) is already surreal enough, but the ending is even more so, almost to the point of incoherence. Your mileage may vary, here: fans of Clickhole’s writing will probably enjoy this, but those who are not may find it over the top. Still, I found this a reasonably enjoyable, short, slightly absurd piece.

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.