The Periwink

by Jedediah Berry (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes]

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Caption: line drawing of a flower

You are a groundskeeper on the last day on the job. The majordomo demands it be so. But you have one last task…

The Periwink brings the player through surreal, toothy, quietly alive landscapes, somewhat like a pastel-hued Porpentine work. The monuments in The Periwink are not neutral or even benign, but if you treat them right, they will return the favour.

As groundskeeper, the viewpoint character knows much more about the perils of each monument than the majordomo, which forms a foil to his casual arrogance. But the groundskeeper also knows a lot more than the player – hence, while the player may have control over the PC’s actions, the first-time player cannot guess at the motive or implications of those actions.

The horror here is understated; the writing, a pleasure to read. For someone who loves rambling around alien landscapes, this was a delectable treat. A similar, albeit shorter, game would be vale of singing metals.

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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.

Dynamic fiction

These two Twine works are short and linear, but use the gamut of effects available to them well. These are good examples of the value interactivity can add.


Compound Fracture by Jimmy Evans (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 5 minutes]

The actual text in this game is scarce, as words would be when oxygen is scarce, yet it begins with a blasé This game embraces deceptively simple text effects, where links wriggle and shift out from your cursor. Fragments of thought flick by under a visibly lengthening bar, with the implicit understanding that when that bar runs out, so does your time. The thoughts that flicker past hint at past regrets, a family less than proud of you: the usual emotional baggage, but even there’s no time to pursue those thoughts. The writing, though sparse, has a stoic, matter of fact tone, from the first line: “you are going to die/okay”. In one of the endings, you can do nothing but watch the timer count down.

This is a shining example of real-time effects done right, adding as it does to something otherwise quite simple. (This might be easier played with a mouse.)


What to do When You’re Alone by Glass Rat Media (Twine; IFDB)

[May mention suicide, abusive relationships, self-loathing. Time to completion: 5 minutes]

What to Do describes a Google with sinister intentions – one which sees through the user’s seemingly innocuous searches to the doubt and fears behind it. Perhaps it is the intimacy of a search engine that fuels this idea, and the fact that we might address the search engine as we would a friend, and indeed, in the starting screen, the engine introduced itself by saying, “Don’t worry about keywords; just talk to us like we’re a friend.”. It’s the ultimate natural language processor, isn’t it? These games ask, “What if your ultimate reference, your personal librarian, was thinking, remembering, learning?”

While it may be superficially and mechanically similar to Josh Giesbrecht’s Awake, the intent of this game’s search engine is unambiguous. Awake’s search engine is wide-eyed with wonder. This is actively malicious – this was written for ECTOCOMP, after all.

The text effects are normally much maligned, but are used especially thoughtfully here, making What to Do work well as an interactive vignette of a sinister encounter.

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.

 

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 Domovoi

By Kevin Snow (Twine; IFDB)

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Cover art: view from the inside of a dark hut

Your friend is a storyteller, and she’s polishing her latest work about a domovoi, or protective house spirit, lingering in a guttered hut. You are her audience.

The Domovoi is a game about storytelling. Like Whom the Telling Changed, you get to influence events in the story, but where the PC works against an antagonist in Whom the Telling Changed, here the story is a collaborative work. Your friend may express doubt or satisfaction at your choice, and the PC’s perspective outside of the story in the making allows for in-universe commentary. The unnamed NPC in Domovoi has her own views, after all, and if you suggest something with which she disagrees, she will probably slant the story to include that, but make her feelings known.

This game is also a pleasure to play, not least because it is styled attractively. Like Beneath Floes, it features illustrations that set the mood and whose colour schemes demarcate changes in perspective.

Perhaps true to oral tradition, the story you help to tell can vary between play-throughs, depending on the choices you make. The game didn’t dwell on the meta aspect much, though, focusing instead on the meat of the story.

In summary: The Domovoi is an introspective work which taps into Slavic folklore, with a lively NPC and a story within a story. Recommended, if nothing else than for its luscious illustrations and sound effects.

Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai

By Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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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.

Two tiny utopias

The TinyUtopias jam is a very informal game jam, first mooted by Emily Short in a Twitter conversation two weeks ago. Cat Manning writes about it here. It was envisioned as a jam for very short games which encapsulate a utopia – a world which was, if not perfect, then better. The existing games, if listed on IFDB, can be found here, and I will say here that I, too, submitted the morning after to the jam.


The Shape of Our Container is by Rocketnia. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

The Shape of Our Container is a peaceful, conversation-led game about lying in the grass with your loved one. Similar to the other tiny utopias, there is a broad sense of forgiveness and peace. Structure-wise, the game has a broadly branching time-cave structure, allowing large variations between play-throughs. This gives the impression of living many parallel lives, of the impression of time passing.

Container is definitely polished and has fairly high replay value. Short, tender and intimate.


Fridgetopia is by Mathbrush. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Fridgetopia has been described by the author as “mechanically utopian”, in that it doesn’t necessarily sketch out a utopia per se: there is not much world-building here. But this is not a slight against the game. Rather than describe your interactions with a specific space or time, Fridgetopia instead gives you tools with which you can create your own world, to a certain extent.

Fridgetopia is very short, and perhaps not very polished. It reads as much as a coding exercise (albeit an interesting one) as a game, but it does hide at least one secret, which… let’s just say it deserves the label of ‘fridge horror’. Very clever.

Ruiness

By Porpentine. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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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.

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.