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.

Advertisements

Ruiness

By Porpentine. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

viewgame.png
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.

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.

A Courier’s Tale

By SJ Griffin (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Based on the Vanguard Trilogy by the same author, you play a newbie bike messenger working as one of the cogs in the premier courier company, Packet. One of the perks of working here is meeting the legendary Sorcha Blades… which, of course, is what happens when she needs a decoy messenger.

This game is a moderately branching story which takes the PC through an expansive setting, reminiscent of China Miéville or Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and gives the sense of an extensively mapped-out city. Neighbourhoods are given characters of their own; distinct communities live in different parts of the city. The story attempts to illustrate a dangerous city running amok with criminals and secret dangers, in a city so starved of resources that fresh fruit is a minor luxury, but nothing really affects the PC directly. The story structure is simple; clearly the focus is on the writing itself.

The writing itself, however, is not terribly polished; there are typos and missing punctuation marks, there are missing words, there could be more paragraph breaks to let the text breathe. As a spinoff from the source material, I guess it’s no surprise that it ended just as it was getting interesting! If it was expanded to elaborate on the hook mentioned in the last part of the game, and polished a lot more, I think it would make for very interesting reading.

Snowquest

By Eric Eve (Parser; IFDB)

viewgame.jpg

(Cover art: snowy landscape with mountains in the distance)

You’ve been on this quest for so long, you can hardly figure out what’s going on. All you know is that if you remain in this snow any longer, you’ll die.

I enjoyed playing this game, mainly because it is more than it seems. The writing is descriptive and clear; the sense of pacing faultless. Snowquest is very much a story-based game, rather than character-based or even puzzle-based; establishing a distinctive PC voice isn’t an emphasis here.

My playthrough was almost entirely free of mechanical issues, by which I mean problems with guessing verbs, not knowing what to do and so on. The puzzles are largely well-designed, with what you need to solve them usually pretty clear. I found navigation a bit of a chore sometimes, especially in the larger initial world, because the exit lister seemed to disappear without explanation – I suspect this is a technical/interpreter issue, but it disrupted the flow of the game. There is also a guess-the-verb puzzle, through which I bulldozed with the hints.

Overall, Snowquest is a linear, mildly puzzle-y game, making up a little less than an hour’s play.

Inyo Dissonance

By Mary Herring. (Twine; play here)

You start as Kumi dies. As she’s brought into a kind of purgatory, two mysterious figures appear; they bring her through a series of decision-making points to decide if she should be allowed to carry on living or not.

The decisions that Kumi is asked to make mainly take the form of moral decisions – along the lines of how you should live your life – though the impact this could have had was lessened by the binary nature of the dilemmas presented. At each decision-making point, only one of the answers led to progress in the story, implying that there was only one morally acceptable answer. Yet, in real life, it is possible to find moral and ethical justifications for multiple approaches to the same dilemma. This quiz-style story structure (where branches are very quickly pruned off with death) prevents Inyo Dissonance from delving into a more nuanced view of moral/ethical decision-making.

The NPCs, the guides and arbitrators of Kumi’s fate in the afterlife, could have been the stars of the show. There was potential, there. They seem to be cast as the good guy and bad guy, reminding me of Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens, but neither seem to be particularly strong characters.

One thing that really bugged me – in terms of the technical aspect of the writing – was the narrator/PC. The PC isn’t Kumi, because Kumi is always referred to in the third person while the PC is addressed directly. So who’s the PC? How are you related to Kumi, and why is her fate and life in your hands? It’s never addressed.

Inyo had some interesting ideas at its core, but it was marred by the cosmetic – the spelling mistakes – and the way the story was delivered.

Icepunk

by pageboy. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 1.49.52 PM.jpg

Screenshot of gameplay: grid map made of ASCII symbols

You are the last living inhabitant of your Habitat, your only companions the robots that maintain your living spaces. But there is hope… if you can collect enough data to feed the central computer in your Habitat, maybe you can avert catastrophe.

First, the interesting stuff. Icepunk features a procedurally generated landscape, represented on an ASCII map. Likewise, each setting is illustrated with ASCII art. I’m sure this took effort.

Data, in Icepunk’s setting, takes myriad forms. Some comes from the lingering traces of mechanical life – ice golems, families and so forth – but in building your future, you must destroy them. Data also comes in the form of excerpts from (public domain) books and, in one memorable instance, tweets (which nets you ‘5 TB of Frivolous data’…).

However, where Icepunk is weaker is its reliance on lawn-mowering. You have to make repeated trips out into the wastes and return to your home base to deposit the data in the central computer – this is not in itself anything bad, but there seems to be little enough variation in the landscape that regions start feeling homogenous. Also, you can only travel by clicking on a map symbol adjacent to where you are – making travel back to your home base at best, mundane; at worst, frustrating. The delay that I encountered in loading the page only added to the frustration. I imagine this would deter people from playing it through to completion.

Nonetheless, Icepunk is an interesting experiment in exploration in IF, one which gives a different meaning to ‘datamining’, even if it was let down by tedium.

Chemistry and Physics

By Carolyn VanEseltine and Caelyn Sandel (writing as Colin Sandel) (Twine; IFDB)

viewgame.png

(Cover art: pixellated meteor across a black sky)

When you agreed to meet him, you thought it would all end amicably. That you could go away and close this chapter of your life. Instead, you’re now running from him. Bad news: no cell phone reception. You can’t call for help. You’re stuck. Good news: this is familiar territory. This is your lab. Can you get out of this alive?

[This game contains mentions of abuse and violence.]

The game is simply done and technically well-thought-out, with an inventory system and a navigation system using a compass, a la The Axolotl Project. Item descriptions of things in the lab reveal a close attention to accuracy and detail; you can pick up a beaker of isopropyl and trust that the information you get will be like something you might find on an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet).

The writing steers clear of florid detail or elaborate tricks with language, instead reminding the player of the urgency of the chase at every other turn (“He’s near”). Some might find it too technical or clinical; I found it struck a good balance.

Chemistry and Physics uses no fancy tricks, does nothing neat with multimedia, but instead relies on the strength of its writing to convey the animal fear of being chased.

SABBAT

By oh no problems/Eva. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

showimage.jpg

(Cover art: ink/line drawing of a creature with four goat heads and the body of a snake)

(There is also a commercial/paid version of SABBAT with art and a soundtrack. This was based on the free version, linked above.)

[Warning: this game contains mentions of sexual content and self-harm, also optional animal abuse.]

It’s hard to have a sabbat of one, but hopefully, once you get all the materials together, you’ll be able to gather power for yourself.

SABBAT’s narrator is friendly and encouraging. It was kind of like having a friend to guide and cheer you on, and in a game about making blood sacrifices to gain power, it was unexpected, but oddly cheering. I cannot hate a game which calls me witchdumpling. The mildly cynical humour here is refreshing. Instead of making trite remarks about how awful everything is, the humours slants toward the self-referential. You’ve made candles infused with centipede venom, and you muse how hard it was to get that venom in the first place and why did you buy a centipede again?

This game is quite the genre-breaker. It taps on the ‘Living Alone in My Sad Apartment’ genre, but uses this to highlight the contrast between your current state and the power that you eventually attain.

SABBAT draws from, amongst other things, the idea of power through sex. Part of the PC’s transformation involves a change in sexual organs, and one of the ways the transformed PC gets power from people is by having sex (or at least attempting to).

The game could be a bit of a mixed bag. The subject matter involves mixing with unknown forces, a theme usually given a more serious treatment in other fiction, but here it feels almost everyday. Yet the game remains self-aware as the PC acknowledges the strangeness of it all.

The branching reminded me of Magical Makeover, where combinations of items combine to produce different outcomes. Like MM, there are no ‘bad’ combinations in SABBAT (though there are some which are more amusing than others).

I wouldn’t usually have plumped for the storyline, but the narrator really made the game for me. It can be polarising, but, for me, it was a charming game about the powerless seeking power and the lonely seeking companionship.