Thursday, January 7, 2016

IGF nominees: my comments


The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (March, San Francisco, expensive). This year I was invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative (along with Emily Short and some other folks you might know).

As I understand the awards process, it's a three-phase thing. A large pool of game experts and designers nominate a large list of games, and then spend a few months playing and commenting on them. (The long list was over 750 games this year.) Smaller groups of experts then look at the top-voted entries on the long list and select six finalists. The final winners will be announced from GDC on March 16th.

I was involved in phase 2, which meant playing a bunch of games (but like a dozen, not 750!) and then talking them over with the other folks on the narrative jury. I have permission to post my game notes (although not, of course, anything the other jurors said!) and that's this post.

The finalists in the Narrative category were (in alphabetical order): The Beginner's Guide; Black Closet; Her Story; The Magic Circle; That Dragon, Cancer; Undertale. Congratulations to all of them! And to the finalists in the other categories, too.

Important details:
  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. I don't feel I've played enough games this year to have a sense of what's best overall. I had enough trouble squeezing in the time to play the Narrative nominees!
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.) I had already purchased (and played) Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide on my own account.
  • I wrote these comments in the order that I played the games. Except for Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide, which I wrote up pretty much when they occurred to me.
  • Nearly all of the top-voted narrative games were available for Mac! Good news for us Mac folks. (I asked about this in advance; I wouldn't have accepted the invitation if I couldn't play the games.)
  • See also Emily Short's post of comments about the voting process.

My voting criteria were... well, Emily's post has a good list of points: mechanics that support the story, observant writing, and substance. I care about all of those things, but it's an extremely subjective process. I certainly didn't give a finely-graded point-based score to each game. I also didn't simply vote for my favorite games. Obviously my preferences color everything! But the audience here is people who follow indie gaming, not just me, so I tried to keep that in mind.

In the end, I tried to pick the games which will make gamers say "Holy crap, games are even more narratively awesome than I thought."

Games that I discuss in this post:
  • The Writer Will Do Something
  • Sun Dogs
  • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald
  • The Beginner's Guide
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Her Story
  • The Magic Circle
  • Emily Is Away
  • Cibele
  • Read Only Memories
  • Oxenfree
  • Sunset
  • Undertale

Onward to the comments!


The Writer Will Do Something


Clever, sharp portrayal; writing from the heart, which is to say it will go over well with everybody in the biz; not particularly interactive. Makes good use of the palette of "nuh-uh" interactivity -- familiar stuff but it's short enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome.

In the end this is an anecdote which will draw a regretful nod from anybody who's even remotely close to the game industry. (I am only remotely close myself, mind you.)

Sun Dogs


Very atmospheric but it feels sparse. You start with one mission but it is difficult to find any others. (I found one other mission on my first play-through, none on my second.) Mostly you fly around and have a collection of disconnected encounters. You accumulate an inventory of capabilities and bric-a-brac; some of this opens up alternate encounters and endings, but you can't effectively search for these options, so you're stuck with random exploration.

Sometimes you die unexpectedly and lose some of your stuff. This is a minor nuisance, which fits the setting -- but since the only achievable goal is "randomly collect all the stuff", this is a serious drawback in play.

If there were a way to follow connections, or enough content that you were constantly running into story element connections by sheer luck, this would be a lot more engaging. As it is I've played twice and I feel like I've done it all.

Langeskov Emerald


This was a bagatelle, and yet I laughed! Reader, I laughed.

The game relies entirely on a deft absurdism, juggling silly concepts of how games do (or should) work. If you care more or less about making games than I do, it will fall flat. Probably the fact that it works at all (for me) just shows how young videogames are as a medium; you can't go to this well often before everybody (including me) starts saying "Yeah yeah, meta-humor, next please." But this time, I laughed.

(Second thoughts: didn't Portal 2 do all these jokes plus a whole range of other emotional tones, plus great puzzle design? I guess it did. So I'm just a sucker for British comedians. Fine.)

The Beginner's Guide


Having just played Langeskov Emerald Whatsit, I should write up my thoughts about The Beginner's Guide (which I played last month).

I found TBG really engaging. Yes, three out of my first four games in this IGF thing are "game-writing by game writers about game-writing", and that's too many. I have no desire for this medium to disappear up its own self-regarding butthole. And no, TBG is not the best writing or the best character story I've encountered this year. The construction of Coda's games is too artificial, too geared towards the narrator's presentation of them -- I was never able to believe in a real Coda (even outside the narrator's distortions).

But TBG hits three of my, as they say, bulletproof kinks. First: unity of form and content -- ideas about games are presented in a game, in a way that really wouldn't be possible in any other medium. Second: the unreliable narrator -- my brain is engaged in absorbing the story on multiple levels, trying to figure out how they relate or contradict. Third: the questions of fame, public persona, personal boundaries, and what we get from this whole crazy enterprise anyhow.

As I said in my notes about Emerald Tiger Whatever, this is a young medium. When I say that, I mean that a game can impress me simply by taking on a topic or an approach I've never seen before. The next generation will be over all that. I'm not, and I just love the way TBG revels in doing this sort of thing. Can you do characterization via Let's Play, addressing the player directly all the way through and putting the entire story in subtext? Of course! Boom. I'm sold.

That Dragon, Cancer


An emotional gauntlet to get through, obviously, but also a relief after all the clever Stanley-Parable-ness. Someone tells us a story -- an actual story that happened to him. That's all. It's not clever. It's simple, honest, and it works.

Okay, not all of it is simple. The game-metaphor scenes come perilously close to being clever, and I think they lose power because of it. When I see a game, I start to look for game mechanics -- that's a distraction. I'm sure the point is to set up game convention (try to win) against story convention (no victory), which is fine, but we've seen that trick dozens of times before. Show me how you drowned. That's what works.

Let me rephrase my complaint: the game felt scattershot. The chapters went back and forth between metaphors that you observe and metaphors that you engage with. Maybe "unbalanced" is the word I'm looking for.

Then, in the middle, the scene with the baby toy and the four-part conversation. That used interactivity to present points of view, which was -- actually really cool! But again, out of balance with the rest of the game. A degree of meaningful control existed only in that scene, and then we are back to being (complicit) observers. I dunno, I'm probably splitting hairs that absolutely nobody else cares about.

Show me a hospital bed. Show me your letters to God. Show me a baby. Being in a room with a screaming baby is a human experience which, it turns out, a game can present very effectively. Why does that seem strange? Only because we keep gaming in such a small, cramped box.

Her Story


Played this several months ago, when it came out; really enjoyed it.

(I've known of the author since ancient times in the IF community. However, we didn't meet in person until this year's Indiecade, after I played the game.)

I have nothing to say about the game itself except "See what happens when you have exactly one mechanic and tune the entire game experience around it?" (The CRT-style screen distortion was a bit much for me, I admit. I turned that off.)

The sneaky part of why Her Story is awesome, and I didn't really get this until I started reading other people's reviews, is that it pretty well works no matter how you approach it. (Despite having no gating mechanism at all.) Every player is going to run into different bits of information first, but there's a common cycle of "Huh, this is strange", "Huh, I suspect shenanigans", "Huh, I wonder if...". This indicates a very broad spread of very minor clues, which must be a lot harder to set up than it is to say.

The other bit I want to talk about is how genre-fluid the story is; it has interestingly different readings whether you think of it as a police procedural, a gothic thriller, a contemporary fairy tale. But I basically lifted that observation off Emily's review posts, so I'll leave it for her to discuss. :)

The Magic Circle


Whew. There was a fair amount of that game. I mean, compared to Tiger Heist Langerhans, anyhow.

So, The Magic Circle had a lot of fun in it -- but not compared to the amount of game there was. The core mechanic was good, and they worked a lot of clever stuff into it... but it still felt like about six-to-eight clever puzzle scenes spread out over a lot of landscape. Mind you, they could have paced it out with combat! (Which would have been awful.) I enjoyed the exploration enough to finish the game. (Despite the truly terrible framerate on my Mac, sigh.)

But! We're not here to talk about game mechanics. (Or framerate.) The narrative was... not as closely connected to the game as it needed to be. This is a game about taking control of your experience as a player -- but your trip around the fantasy/sci-fi world is an extended hacking session whose goal is "end the hacking session". It has no influence on anything in the narrative until the moment you hack Coda's terminal. And in the meantime... journals. I have nothing against journals per se, but all the background kind of hammered in the point that the story was on hold for most of the game's duration.

There was plenty of background. It was well-written. I was motivated to collect it all, which is all the excuse that journals need. Still -- it was jarring to reach the endgame and feel the story jolt back into gear, while also removing most of the exploring-and-experimenting mechanics that I'd been enjoying.

Cheesy meta presentation tricks at the start and end... full points. I will never have anything bad to say about cheesy meta tricks.

This leaves us to the tone. After four? five? stories' worth of game designers talking about game design, I think we have a respectable sample, and I will say that TMC's approach was my least favorite. It was fundamentally nasty: everybody in the story was an asshole. And, as an evocation of an archetypical game project, it implied that everybody is an asshole. The design gurus, the programmers, the level builders, the artists, HR, the playtesters, the customers, the fans. The guy who once wrote a famous text adventure and wants to move on to other things. (Cough.) All of us. Assholes.

Except possibly the Bastion-y AI, who is clearly a jerk but may have noble goals. To wit: teaching you to be a game designer! You can be better than all those other folks! And if you believe that, then you're the asshole.

The Writer Will Do Something was all about assholes, but (a) you could try to do better or walk away, even if it was a cursory attempt; (b) it was short. You could recognize the scenario without soaking in it. TMC was a long, sordid bath. Or, let me put it this way: TWWDS, even in its brutal portrayal, had compassion. TMC had not a scrap.

Emily Is Away


It is hard for me to think about this outside the context of Emily (Short)'s review and the other posts around that time. I read a bunch of them before playing EiA. (Usually I avoid discussion or at least skip the spoilers before I've played a game.)

(I also saw an alpha version of EiA at a Boston Indies demo meetup last year. I only looked at it for a few seconds, though -- I didn't get any of the storyline.)

So after all that, I'm afraid the game didn't have a huge impact on me. It's not my era; I didn't use Windows, I didn't use that chat interface. It does not ping for me.

Not to say it's an alien world -- I sent lots of email! To high-school crushes, even. But, well, I also spent my college years not drinking and not getting laid. (If that's not too much info.) So when I tried to "play me" in the game, it kind of forced me off into a situation that wasn't very me.

(Although by avoiding alcohol, I avoided the plot branch with the skeeviest overtones.)

I have the sense that fans are being drawn in by the nostalgia of the game's presentation; by the extreme off-stage narrative (everything important happens in the scene breaks, so it's all up to your imagination); and by the "nuh-uh" interactivity. (The untyped-rejected choices in the last scene.) This is not new stuff to IF experts but maybe the broader audience still gets a charge out of it.

But -- to the extent that it has an impact, it really emphasizes that the game is about you. Your tongue-tied regret, your sense of lost possibility, your implied unrequited crush. Even if you spent the early chapters trying to empathize with Emily, her viewpoint gets pretty well scrubbed out of the last scene. And that is kind of skeevy no matter how you got there.

Cibele


I pulled this up after Emily Is Away, thinking "I'm done with Games About Game Writers, so it's time to play all the Games About Terrible Online Relationships! Ha ha kill me."

As with my grousing about GAGW, this was unfair -- all these games do different things, from different angles, and I'm really having a great time comparing them all.

Cibele is purely expository game. I will go a very short distance out on a limb and call it autobiographical. It presents itself as a dramatization of an event in the author's life. Or a dramatization of events in the lives of a social circle she was part of -- the difference doesn't weigh on my response. Either way, it rings with the same honest self-presentation that I felt in That Dragon, Cancer.

As with EiA, I am getting a story that I did not live through. My college years predated the era of hot selfies as a flirting tactic. I spent a bit of time on MUDs, but it wasn't my social milieu.

But Cibele contrasts nicely with EiA. Its narrator is a specific person; it doesn't invite me to "play me". Instead, it fills in "Nina's" background with the digital artifacts of her life. (This is very much a database-search game -- to the extent you're doing anything, you're browsing files. Compare to Portal (1986) more than Her Story.) The upshot is that I felt pulled into another person's world in exactly the way that EiA failed to. But, at the same time, I had no sense that this was my story or my world. Even when I was steering an avatar around a faux-MMO UI, it was pro-forma interactivity -- the hand on the mouse was not the voice on the headphones.

So, Cibele gives us intimacy without complicity. I could call that thematic -- the story is about unreciprocated intimacy. But, eh, that's probably crap. I think this model is just the best way the author found to present her story. (I haven't read any extra-game statements by the author, so if I'm wrong, go ahead and mock.)

(The game also gives us intimacy with subjectivity, which I appreciated. I see so much discussion framed as "male gaze" versus "female gaze". Cibele shows a woman's body in self-gaze, which really isn't either of the above.)

What hovers over the game as you play is fear. Is the the story of a victim? Again, maybe there's extra-game framing which clears that up... I don't think so, though. That's the energy of the story as I felt it. And it's resolved: no it's not. There's uncertainty, there's hurt, there's regret; but everyone is being as honest as I figure college students know how to be. We're left without a dramatic ending, which is of course how an honest personal story has to end. Life isn't over, this is just a thing that happened.

So I'm moved, and drawn in. More so than with TD,C, which really is kind of an overload -- how can you not empathize with the parents of a dying child? You monster. It's practically pre-ordained. Cibele is far more tentative, but I think more effective for that.

But, on the flip side, it is mechanically thin. TD,C screwed up some of its interactive presentation, but when it got parts right, it wowed me more than a straight database game could. EiA made good story use of its UI, and of course Her Story used its search mechanic to turn "straight database game" into something massively engaging. Cibele just doesn't have much to compare.

Sorry, I've slipped back under my (so-weighty) game-designer hat. This is not how the wider audience is going to react, and so it's a dumb note to end my review on. Cibele was a really sweet game! I'm glad I played it.

Read Only Memories

  • (John "JJSignal" James, Ted DiNola, Tommy Thompson)
  • IGF entry page
  • (did not finish)

I played about a chapter and a half of this. It's a nice production, but the story didn't grab me at all. I don't think the writing is bad -- it's pretty bouncy and there's a good variety of characters. But none of the plot hooks hooked me. AI-is-sentient, nothing new there; broke gumshoe in cyberpunk style, ditto; etc. All tropes, nothing built on the tropes.

Also, the story seems to be held together by coincidence. As far as I got, anyhow. (For all I know, the cute robot buddy turns out to be an evil mastermind. Sorry if that turns out to be a spoiler.)

Also, the conversation was all line-by-line slow-print. I maxed out the animation speed and clicked through as fast as possible; it was still slow and painful to read. Literally painful -- the game uses an eyestrain pixel font. I am not sentimental about pixels.

It's got the form of an early Sierra-Lucas-style graphical adventure, but it doesn't have much adventure-ness. It's mostly scripted conversation alternating with room-search, with just an occasional light puzzle thrown in. I'm sure this balance is deliberate, but it's not my thing. So I gave up.

Oxenfree


I was only able to play the opening; I ran into some kind of camera bug that prevented me from advancing. (Got stuck just after entering the cave.)

The game seemed strong up to that point. The characters are vivid (in a Scooby Gang way) (original cartoon or Buffy ref, take your pick). The art is nice and the animations are smooth.

The interface lets you participate in a full-on multi-person conversation without dropping out of the move-and-explore UI. That's not ostentatious, and players might not even pick it out as a feature, but it's really impressive when you think about it. The opening scene has you and your gang of pals/rivals/relatives sneaking out to the beach. You wind up in a game of truth-or-etc, throwing embarrassing questions at each other, and incidentally setting up all the characterization -- while simultaneously wandering around, throwing rocks, grabbing a beer out of the cooler, checking the exits. Any of these things in isolation would be standard point-and-click fare, but doing it all in one smooth scene just works really well. I hope more games pick up the trick.

I didn't get far enough to feel where the story was going -- besides "ghost story" -- but I look forward to a version that's playable for me.

Sunset


Strong on story, weak on making me think that I'm part of the story.

The model of "absorb narration while your hands are kept busy with low-level tasks" is common enough. (It's the bulk of Cibele, for example.) Sunset is trying to foreground this model, in fact, I think -- you are a housekeeper, literally tidying up the penthouse of the rich mover-shaker type. The fantasy-architecture space is gorgeous, luxuriously furnished, and not yours.

However, putting a lampshade on the model is not per se a solution to anything. The actual play of Sunset consists of walking into the apartment, hearing a narration of recent events, and then tooling around to complete your chores. As you do, you may find optional actions -- these are how your character gets personally involved in the story. I gather that the story arcs are "you romance your boss", "you aid the revolution", "you help get your brother out of jail". (I'm not sure whether those last two are independent.)

The problem is, these options are necessarily indirect -- you're just moving things around in an apartment -- and appear with little context. So it's not ever really clear what you're accomplishing. If you make a fancy dinner and leave it on the table, is that generous or subservient? If you move an encrypted letter, are you covering for your boss or interfering with his plans? Nor can you ever take back an action. Thus, I had no sense of trying to advance specific goals. Instead, I would just punch every button I found, on the theory that doing anything was more interesting than doing nothing. I wound up not getting very far in any of the story arcs.

(Assuming I've even understood the arcs correctly! I'm mostly going off the Steam achievements list, I admit. I've unlocked "interested in Ortega" but not "has feelings for Ortega" or "probably in love with Ortega". Okay then.)

(I'm pretty sure I boinked him in that last chapter, so I must be the casual-fling type of girl.)

What Sunset does really well is immerse you in an environment, and then convey mood through shifts in that environment. I spent three hours walking around that penthouse; I saw it empty, furnished, cluttered, damaged, repaired, reconstructed, and stripped. I performed a lot of those changes, plus some touches of my own personalization. They paralleled the narrative, and I'll say this: when I took a break, my real-life apartment suddenly looked pokey and cramped. And it took me a moment to remember where my real-life bathroom was. I swear this is true.

The period decor is fantastic. So much Helvetica. So much. This is a compliment.

What Sunset does not do so well is propel you through the story. Chores are boring. I don't know if chores have to be boring -- maybe there's a way for this to work -- but Sunset didn't make it interesting. By halfway through, I was just clicking and waiting for the story to end. Then hoping for it to end. Then pleading. As Christmas approached in the game calendar, I became desperately attached to the theory that the game would end at the end of 1972. Result: I am a person who has greeted Epiphany by flipping it the two-fisted bird, which must be an uncommon blasphemy. (The game runs three months into 1973, in case you're wondering.)

So we have a game which takes up a set of tools, and works the heck out of those tools; I think it does everything it can possibly do with them. I admire this, but I cannot recommend the game because I spent half of it wishing I wasn't playing any more.

Undertale


I played this for 90 minutes, and it was... I don't know. Funny, but not that funny. It has all the JRPG conventions that make me not play JRPGs. It messes with them but it's still based on them. So I quit.

Then I look at discussion by people who are into it, and they're rapturous. I see people enthusiastically discussing how the themes work and how much there is buried in the story. How brilliant the hard ending is (which takes 15-umpty hours to reach). All under spoilers! The first thing everybody says about Undertale is that it's hard to talk about without spoilers.

Well. James Nicoll's second most famous quote is, "I don't mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface." The surface level of Undertale has nothing for me, and it's careful to conceal everything I might care about. You win, Undertale. You have successfully imitated a game I don't want to play.

...Here's a less snide way of putting it: Undertale is aimed at a particular audience, and it calls its shot right up front. I did the same thing with Hadean Lands. Want to play old-school IF with alchemy puzzles? Let's start with an old-school IF alchemy puzzle! Begin as you mean to go on. Undertale is the same way. If you don't get a huge kick out of the first 30 minutes, stop.



Comments imported from Gameshelf


Ayslia (Jan 7, 2016 at 5:53 PM):

I think those are all good games, deserving of their nominations and honorable mentions respectively, but none of them are really great games (although admittedly I haven't played all of them). That isn't really a criticism of the jury's selection, I don't know of many 'really great' narrative games this year.

Her Story is impressively constructed, I quite enjoyed it, but the plot is, as Liz Ryerson put it, 'daytime-soap level'. ROM- I only played the demo but while the art was beautiful neither the plot nor characterization drew me in. Langeskov was funny and enjoyable, but it didn't really leave much of an impact on me (nor do I think it was intended to). TWWDS was also funny but also didn't really leave much of a lasting impact on me (again, nor do I think it was intended to). I liked the Beginner's Guide, but I, too, am kind of tired of these Games about Games. I haven't played any of the other games on the list, besides Undertale, but I haven't heard enough positive things about any of the released games to be willing to spend money on them as a cash-strapped college student.

Re: Undertale. I've noticed four different types of reactions to it so far: people who /really/ enjoyed it, people who passionately hate it for some reason, people who couldn't really get past the JRPG trappings, and people who found the pacifism shtick irritating.

I had kind of an interesting experience myself. I played the fully pacifist version of the game. I always do whenever games give me the option (Dishonored, DX:HR). In those other games, I /only/ played the pacifist version, and was planning on doing so with Undertale. But then again, a lot of what made people really enjoy Undertale was apparently the fact that when you replayed it in a non-pacifist way, there was a lot more depth to the story. Under the heavy spoiler tags, I've gathered that one of those themes is basically that... people are bad for being completionists? And that's an interesting theme, but I'm usually /not/ a completionist. I'm not willing to replay a game to get a worse ending, and I very, very rarely deliberately make a choice I'm not morally comfortable with in games (that is to say, if I think choice A is morally superior to choice B, I will take choice A, unless choice B isn't that much worse than choice A).

So, in order to get the depth of Undertale, I would have to play it in a way I usually don't play games, in order to get a lecture about the way I'm playing it, is what I've gathered. I might be wrong about that. Ultimately, what's stopped me from replaying the game is actually two unrelated factors: I found the pacifism shtick in the first playthrough kind of grating (Violence is Bad seems to be the most commonly explored theme in games, followed by Games about Games), and I don't like the gameplay (I'm very bad with anything reflex-based). So I've decided I'm not going to replay it. As a result, the game I ended up playing was a very cute game about befriending monsters, which I quite enjoyed but which did not astonish me.

(Heh, sorry for the lengthy somewhat off-topic commentary on undertale, my only real excuse is the fact that I played it months after it was released and thus kind of missed the boat on discussing it...)

Anyways, it's been quite interesting to read your and Emily Short's thoughts on the jury process. I kind of wish the judges for the other prizes would do so as well.

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