Spring Thing 2017: brevity quest

By Chris Longhurst. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: two white stick figures on a black background, one with a pole, one with a sword

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.

Several games share the text-sparse, location-based mould. A few which come to mind: The Tiniest Room, vale of singing metals or even burning temples.

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.

Two reviews about exploring mental landscapes

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)

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Cover image: someone playing the trumpet. We can only see their hands.

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.

Eurydice (anonymous) (parser; IFDB page here)

This game was submitted to IFComp 2012, where it placed 2nd. It was also nominated for Best Story in the 2012 XYZZY awards.

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Cover image: an autumnal image of a lyre

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.

 

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.

13 Minutes of Light

By Jod (Ren’Py; IFDB)

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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 Warbler’s Nest

By Jason McIntosh (Parser; IFDB)

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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)

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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.

Kotodama

By Aidan Doyle. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: the kanji characters for ‘kotodama’

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.

Get Lost!

By S. Woodson. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: ink drawing of a fairy with butterfly wings against a spiderweb on a green background

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.

Spring Thing 2016: Sisters of Claro Largo, Shipwrecked

By David T. Marchand (IFDB; Twine; play here)

Spring Thing (or Fall Fooferall) is upon us! This year boasts a dizzying diversity of styles and stories, with some reaching Imaginary Game Jam levels of imagination. You can find all the games here.


When you escaped, you were childless. Now, away from the City and its cells, you have two daughters, both special and peculiar in their own ways. Their stories will shape the future of Claro Largo, and who knows what else?

The narrator in this game is pretty much invisible, compared to what the titular sisters do (and end up doing). The story is grim, melancholic; the village setting suggests claustrophobia, despite its promise of freedom. To me, this called to mind stories such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin, or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. (Of course, these comparisons are far from perfect, though they share similar tones and atmospheres.)

This game uses telescopic text (similar to what this tool does) to slowly reveal the story. This gimmick is purely mechanical (technically, there’s nothing really to stop this being a linear story), but the order in which text is presented makes clear the conceptual links, the story’s chronological order. Sisters is very simple, but tells a good story. One playthrough took me about 15 minutes.


Shipwrecked is a very short game by Andrew G. Schneider (Twine; IFDB; play here), who also wrote Nocked! in this year’s Spring Thing.

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Cover art: desert background against a blue sky

The premise is that you’re annotating and shaping the journal of a sailor marooned in the Endless Desert. The story is quite broadly branching, with some branches longer than the others. The writing is more flowery than one might expect from a desert journal, but it allows for contrast with different writing styles, which is very much in line with the theme. I found the ending bit to balance out the floweriness of the earlier parts, which was a nice twist.

Ironically, the prose still bears traces of not having been edited, however, with sentences such as “A fetching the lady pirate…”. I’m… not sure if this was intentional. If it was, then that is pretty inspired.

I admit that I took a while to warm to Shipwrecked, especially with the writing style. I liked where it went with the editor, though, and actually found myself wanting a more substantial story, rather than the meandering storyline I found here.

QUIMER-B

By David T. Marchand (Twine; IFDB; play here)

From the creator of When acting as a particle / when acting as a wave comes a polished work of linear fiction about the creator of QUIMER-B, a virtual consciousness so powerful it could take over the running of a city, and, ever since its conception, a source of moral outrage. To prove QUIMER is capable of running a city, you’re going to put your whole facility under its control for one day. If you can prove that, then maybe it can handle the pressure from everyone else.

Except it never really goes to plan, does it?

QUIMER-B is part epistolary, part first-person narration of an apocalypse in action. This game has a good grasp of pacing, creating tension through static and dynamic text. It sometimes uses the mechanic of clicking to draw out a scene, or to contrast it with the timed appearance of a piece of text.

Compellingly written and story-driven, this game’s strength is in sketching out the story – and the relationships between the PC and NPCs – and in letting the reader draw their own conclusions from these snippets. It’s a bit like watching an opera with minimal backdrops, where it just takes a few props to suggest a palace, or a battlefield.

It’s worth having a click through this short, polished game.