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.

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.

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.

Tough Beans

By Sara Dee (parser; IFDB)

In this mid-length work, you play as Wendy Little, secretary in Pickleby, Otis and Meyer, a position your father got you. You’re engaged to Derek, and, well, everything… is peachy.

Tough Beans is, on the surface, a going-to-work simulator – go to work, perform menial errands and so forth – but the story stands out. It highlights how women – especially those who fit the archetypes of femininity – are so often belittled and infantilised. The game opens with an extended musing on the names that people call you – in fact, barely anyone apart from the PC herself calls her by her given name:

Baby. Babe? Babe?

For as long as you can remember, you’ve never really had a name–never needed one. For 22 years people have swaddled you in epithets, letting you know that even though you’re not quite on the right track, the world is there to hold your hand. Your father, your friends, your boyfriend. Gas station attendants.

This game is heavily reliant on cutscenes (do I hear accusations of “not interactive enough!”?) to tell the PC’s account of a lifetime of being put down. Given that the game focuses on the story of an established character, I’d argue that it works, just that it looks a daunting sometimes.

What would have made the game better would be work on the technical aspects and hinting actions that I needed to do to progress were not always obvious. The choice of verbs is not always intuitive (for me, anyway). If it were not for the walkthrough, I would have missed a puzzle altogether. Changes in location were not always clearly indicated in the text.

The story arc reminded me of Hedda Gabler’s play A Doll’s House, with the PC’s progress palpable through the story and contrasted clearly at the end. And an aside, ROT13’d for your convenience: Gur nfvqrf, gbb, ner jevggra va n jnl gung sberfunqbj gebhoyrf va gur CP’f eryngvbafuvc (va erfcbafr gb rknzvavat gur CP’f oblsevraq’f obbxf, lbh trg “Lbh’er gelvat gb trg zbivat, abg chg lbhefrys gb fyrrc.”)

 

Allison and the Cool New Spaceship Body

By Tempe O’ Kun, art by Samuel Pipes (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 10.15.40 PM.jpg

(Screenshot of starting screen: illustration of a small, hovering yellow and black spaceship with a black screen on the front showing cheerful eyes; the spaceship has two little arms holding a purple backpack)

You are 10-year-old Allison. When you were very young you were in a horrible accident, and since then you’ve used a cyborg body. But today, your parents have prepared a surprise for you… your own spaceship body!

The game is set in a space colony, in which AIs make up a major part of society. Despite that, there is still a distinct division between AIs and ‘true’ humans, leaving cyborgs like Allison in a grey area. The author takes full advantage of the world building by focusing more on exploration rather than plot – its approach felt a little like some of the moon scenes in Creatures Such as We. The writing is rightly described as charming.

Allison is, on the surface, about a girl’s adventures, but the story world has enough detail to allow it to touch on more contentious subjects like discrimination, about identity, about growing up. It feels like a gentler version of Birdland, with its focus on relationships at school (even if, unlike Birdland, those in Allison are entirely platonic), its child protagonist and its themes. Allison is a thoughtful, charming game with a nicely fleshed-out world – recommended.

Bell Park, Youth Detective

By Brendan Patrick Hennessey (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Twelve-year-old Bell Park, Youth Detective, gets in over her head when she’s called to investigate a murder at a tech conference. What starts out as a favour for a friend to keep things low-key quickly becomes much stranger.

I admit that I played this game after playing Birdland because I wanted to see more of Bell Park. In Birdland, Bell is sharp and witty, yet often the outsider amongst her peers. In Bell Park, Youth Detective, Bell is an outsider in different ways, as a child amongst adults. Her voice is distinctive as ever, with a mixture of irreverence and uncertainty. Here, Bell is much less confident than she is in Birdland: she openly admits to guessing; she hestitates

The writing was colourful and conversational. Descriptions are made from a brutally honest point of view, which is fun to read.

Bell Park, Youth Detective hints that you shouldn’t be taking it all too seriously, with names like Argent Sunflower and clueless event organisers. Even the way each NPC speaks is hugely exaggerated. I still found it hard to suspend disbelief in the final plot reveal, which felt, ironically, like the product of a bright kid’s imagination. What was I expecting? I’m not sure. Maybe an adult crime, something which would fit in with the grimness of a dead body. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Maybe I was being too strait-laced. Nonetheless, it took me about half an hour to click through, and it’s not a bad piece of writing at all.

My Name is Tara Sue

by Maki Yamazaki (Twine; IFDB; play here)

tara

(Cover art: The text ‘My Name is Tara Sue’, with ‘TARA’ made out of Twine passages)

You are Tara Sue and, simply put, you lead a pretty boring life. However, things are about to get more interesting…

MNiTS follows a kind of time cave structure, which allows it to be highly branching despite it being so short; of course, the length of the story and early branching allows for easy replay. The scenarios are slightly outlandish, especially towards the end – a whim of the author’s? – but veer towards the grim.

The joy in such ‘boring work life’ games is discovering the secret whims and fancies of the PC which lie behind their urbane exterior, but MNiTS didn’t establish much specifics.

Worth mentioning is the rather attractive layout and scrollback formatting, which made the final story readable as a conventional short story.

Ultimately, MNiTS made use of a mundane concept which, ironically, could stand to be more interesting.

Thanksgiving

By Hannah Powell-Smith (Twine; IFDB; play here)

You are ‘Casey’, an anxious college student with lots to hide, and you’re going to your boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. Can you keep it together?

Thanksgiving is designed with an eye towards those who unfamiliar with IF, with a preliminary explanation on how to progress in the story and colour-coded links (red is for eavesdropping; green is to progress).

The story largely involves navigating your way through social interactions with relatives: do you act cheerful, or distant? Help out, or try and remain invisible? The player took on the PC’s responsibility to keep the PC’s story straight. NPCs will remember your story, not least your boyfriend. What exactly was ‘true’ is not always clear:

But when it comes to opinions, it’s hard to remember what you’ve said and what you haven’t and what you’ve said to Tommy.

The story also benefits from the PC’s ‘eavesdropping’, adding texture and details to the boyfriend’s family. It was suited to the close proximity that comes with family gatherings on occasions such as this.

I thought the idea of concealing one’s identity was well done. We only ever see the bits of her past that she’s actively trying to hide from her boyfriend’s family, while other incidental details – her real name, details about her family – are irrelevant and thus omitted. Yet, the PC’s past emerges in so many ways: not just in her new name, but also in her uncanny ability to spot scammers, perhaps even in the game’s key mechanic of choosing the approach to social interactions. I would not know how accurate any of this is, but Thanksgiving feels like an extraordinarily nuanced account of the minefield that is social interaction.

The Fixer

by Chikodili Emelumadu (play here)

Women come to her when their husbands stray. She accepts not crude cash, but things of beauty. She will fix them- for as long as they live.

Content warning: this game has sexual themes – it’s not erotic, but it’s not wholly implicit either.

The Fixer is linear, but I really enjoyed playing through it – it reminded me of Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, in its portrayal of everyday mysticism. The beginning scene is reminiscent of noir mysteries – clients come to visit the jaded detective with an intractable problem and offer payment – and indeed the rough outline of the story follows that of a detective story, with the ‘detective’ main character formulating a plan, meeting the perpetrator, and finally fulfilling the contract made with the client. How she does it, though, is vastly, vastly different.

Emelumadu paints a city where spirits and humans mingle; where believing in mysticism is common sense and practicality. She merges the absurd with the filthy; the beautiful with the pragmatic. This quote for example:

A toothpick bobs about in his mouth. His lips are as thick and dark as a roll of roasted tripe.

Emelumadu’s writing is rich with local flavour, from the descriptions of food to the terms of address for different characters to each other, and beautifully detailed, even when she goes into sordid detail of a certain character. Her writing moves from being initially subtle – hinting at the narrator’s identity – to exulting in the narrator’s strange abilities.

The Fixer also uses graphics throughout the story, though I didn’t listen to the audio, and the story art is gorgeous and unobtrusive. A delight to read.