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.

Liminal spaces

Liminal spaces are spaces characterised by transition and impermanence: bus stations, waiting rooms, airports. The first few days of the year often feels the same way to me. All I seem to see is retrospectives and forecasts: forever looking back and looking forward, because the year hasn’t quite got its footing. It seems appropriate, then, to highlight one such game which occupies a similar space.


Bus Station, Unbound, by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst (IFDB; inklewriter; play here)

[Time to completion: 45 minutes. Some branches may describe violence]

You’re going home for Christmas, for the first time in years, if only to make up for all the damaged relationships you’ve had over the years. But the snow is coming down hard, and your next coach is likely to be delayed.

The authors describe this substantial, large work as primarily an interactive novel, but it works as a vaguely open-world exploration as well. There are lots of optional ‘side quests’ and characters with whom you can interact; exploration opens up different endings and storylines.

But this is built on an emotional heart, reflected in the parallels between the PC and the building. The location’s brokenness reflects the PC’s own. The shoddiness of the building itself, the glitchy machinery, the inertia of the buses, even the irritable, argumentative NPCs: aspects of these are reflected, in some way or other, in the PC’s own relationships with their family and in their own life decisions. Perhaps even the liminal nature of the bus station – a space characterised by transition and impermanence – reflects how the PC stands on the cusp of something new.

The theme of symbolically rich buildings, buildings as containers for ideas, is not a new one. This idea, for instance, is taken more literally in Bruno Dias’s Four Sittings in a Sinking House (IFDB page). In both, the titular building reflects brokenness elsewhere: it is the PC themselves in Bus Station, Unbound, while it is the owners’ material worship in Four Sittings.

Something else I enjoyed in reading this were the contrasts and almost-contradictions in the bus station’s ‘characterisation’. It is described in ways that sit uneasily with each other. It is at once a “monstrous waste of money”, but also a structure of “pale concrete petals”, “heartlike” in its action. The storylines invite comparison between Preston Bus Station’s mundanity and terror, human warmth and mechanical coldness. You might run across bus station staff, whose roles are entirely expected, almost boring; or you might stumble into an abyss which would not be out of place in Failbetter Games’s Fallen London.

Bus Station Unbound is pretty word-heavy, and it deserves the title of ‘interactive novel’, but there is a lot in here to explore.


Another game worth mentioning, even if I have not yet collected my thoughts regarding it, is Bruno Dias’s Not All Things Make it Across, a collection of short vignettes drawing from his previous works, including the aforementioned Four Sittings in a Sinking House.

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.