A New Year’s Eve offering from Bruno Dias, set in the same world as Cape and Mere Anarchy.
When I played this for the first time, I had barely played the games referenced here, so why did it appeal so much to me? It’s something about being a refuge from chaos, a safe place where those who put things right can rest – for now. The characters are weary, but at peace.
Its size and scope are kept deliberately small: the verb set is pared down to three verbs; the setting, to one room. But that one room suggests an entire world – one the player gets to know through its people rather than its locations. For a New Year’s Eve story, The World Turned Upside Down doesn’t point so much to hope for the year ahead, as it does to the fixing of past wrongs.
Disclaimer: I identify, to a frightening extent, with one of the characters.
An Ectocomp game with the name of what is usually a joyous occasion gets the ominous mood started early. In this short game, you are preparing for your wedding day, and everything about the preamble suggests reluctance, hesitance; it is immediately clear that this is no consensual union. The wedding is a matter of practicality, as many are, and this affair was the best you were going to get.
The author’s light touch with world-building is not unlike watching a theatre backdrop: sketched out with just enough details for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Of course, this treads the line between minimalism and under-implementation, and one might argue for the description of this or that.
Like The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw (to compare ECTOCOMP to ECTOCOMP), Wedding Day seems at first to have a single path laid out, waiting for you to walk it. But the parser effectively masks the second ending hinted at in the ABOUT text, which gave it satisfying depth for a game with a carefully limited scope.
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.
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.
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)
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.
This game was submitted to IFComp 2012, where it placed 2nd. It was also nominated for Best Story in the 2012 XYZZY awards.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tokyo has been hit by a poetry outbreak. You, a robot, have been sent to deal with it.
Kotodama is set in a world in which poetry is akin to a contagious disease, and that shapes much of the world-building. This much is evident from the first line:
The lobby of the Tokyo Skypoem is filled with panicked humans, their faces scarred by unbridled metaphor. Paramedics carry stretchers bearing limerick-riddled corpses and haiku-exposed skeletons.
The writing sparkles with wit, and the game’s use of metaphor (that is, making it have literal consequences) called to mind Patanoir.Kotodama also gives a welcome depth to the world-building by giving a nod to familiar narratives such as racism or the role of immigrants. This seems to have some link to the title: according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which the game quotes, the concept of ‘kotodama’ applies especially to Japanese in its ‘purest’ form – that is, the language without any loan words – yet, definitions of what counted as ‘pure’ varied over the years.
Kotodama is relatively short, but is highly polished (I found the Poetry Dojo to be a stroke of genius) and very cleverly written. Highly recommended.
This game was originally commissioned for Now Play This, part of the London Games Festival, which I attended and wrote about briefly here.
You are a suburban teen and you’re tired of your boring, non-magical, human life. Maybe if you go out into the woods where the faeries roam, you can join them – maybe… Of course, that depends on whether they’d want you or not.
Like Beware the Faerie Food You Eat, Get Lost! is a riff on fairy-related tropes, but where BtFFYE is grim, Get Lost! is a merry romp through encounters with jaded, ill-tempered fae. The protagonist’s idealistic conceptions of the fae, combined with a comprehensive knowledge of folklore, is quickly frustrated by the ironically mundane nature of the fae themselves.
Woodson’s writing sparkles with life, and the broadly branching game structure makes replay richly rewarding. This game is quite short – it took me about 15 minutes to play it through once – so it should make for excellent lunchtime play.