The Periwink

by Jedediah Berry (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes]

Caption: line drawing of a flower

You are a groundskeeper on the last day on the job. The majordomo demands it be so. But you have one last task…

The Periwink brings the player through surreal, toothy, quietly alive landscapes, somewhat like a pastel-hued Porpentine work. The monuments in The Periwink are not neutral or even benign, but if you treat them right, they will return the favour.

As groundskeeper, the viewpoint character knows much more about the perils of each monument than the majordomo, which forms a foil to his casual arrogance. But the groundskeeper also knows a lot more than the player – hence, while the player may have control over the PC’s actions, the first-time player cannot guess at the motive or implications of those actions.

The horror here is understated; the writing, a pleasure to read. For someone who loves rambling around alien landscapes, this was a delectable treat. A similar, albeit shorter, game would be vale of singing metals.

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.

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.

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.