Monday, January 9, 2017

2017 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 (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!

The narrative nominees:
  • Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • One Night Stand

In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.

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. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)

Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!

This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!

Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.

In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.

(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)


  • (Ocelot Society / Leonard Carpentier, Emmanuel Corno, Sergey Mohov)
  • IGF entry page

An adventure game in which you explore an abandoned starship. Your primary means of interaction is by talking to the shipboard AI. You do this by typing at the computer terminals that you find. Which is to say: this is a parser-based text adventure. I am very pleased with it, and not just for that reason. (Although a parser game always makes me happy.)

To be clear, this is not a traditional Zork-style IF text adventure (where you type commands from a conventional-but-extendable verb set). Nor is it a pure conversation game, which tries to simulate talking to a person. It's a hybrid. You can talk about any topic -- you're talking to an artificial person, after all. But you're trying to do things on the starship, and that means asking the AI to do them for you. You ask it to open doors, for example. But you have to stretch the command boundaries as you explore... so you get the conventional-but-extendable business after all.

The game takes its core mechanics -- looking at things, and then typing terminal commands -- with absolute conviction. Everything you do fits into that model, with a satisfying range of discoverable variation. If the UI had wavered and let you open a box or pull a lever with your hands, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

Free conversation input is of course a heck of a mechanic to wrestle with. Using it for a goal-oriented puzzle game is worse. The IF scene regards free dialogue as maybe usable for goalless character exploration; anything beyond that tends to bring up awful memories of Starship Titanic (1998, billed as a giant technological leap in NPC conversation systems; wasn't.)

This game, as far as I can tell, does not try to be a giant technological leap. (Perhaps the authors will tell me I am wrong, but...) It uses a standard approach: lots of keywords, a bit of pattern matching. I frequently caught the AI misparsing my input because it saw a keyword and ran away with it.

But it works, because the designers have put in reams and reams of effort. Not just on random topics (although there's plenty of that), but on contextual topics to keep the player moving forward. If you don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you can blather haplessly at the AI and it will put you back on the right track. It may be subtle or off-handed; it may just mention a topic that you missed. But it works.

(At least, it worked for me!)

The other nice bit are the broad hints that the AI cares about your phrasing. You can treat the AI as a topic index: just throw verbs and keywords at it. (That's what I did in Starship Titanic.) But it feels worthwhile to type complete sentences and say "please" and "thanks". Not because it gets better results -- but because the game politely asks you to.

Anyway. It's not a perfect game. The story, as SF, is rather thin. Plus I missed a lot of what the story was trying to convey, because I wasn't moved to trawl the AI about random background topics. And I got to a non-ideal ending because I wasn't sure what a particular command would do at the end. (It went boom. Should that have been clear in advance?) But it was a satisfying experience anyhow!

Recommended, for conveying its story entirely through its chosen mechanisms.


Oh, the arguments over this one. It's a medium-short narrative work which is wordless and uses strictly presentational interactivity. A daring combination!

(In the IF Competition, we have a special Golden Banana award for the game with the widest spread of high-vs-low votes. Virginia was definitely the IGF's Golden Banana candidate this year.)

There are lots of wordless narrative games, but they generally give you plenty of agency at the beat-by-beat scale -- you have puzzles or at least exploration goals to tangle with. So you have a sense of expressivity through the protagonist's actions; you are achieving things. Virginia skips right past all of that. You have moment-by-moment agency (walking around, looking at things) but the narrative proceeds without giving you much more than a "next scene" interaction. Sometimes, not even that. You can collect flowers but that's entirely on your own account.

And then, on top of that, it's a character story with no dialogue.

You have to be willing to go with the game on this, and I won't blame you if you don't. But I think it works really well. Virginia adapts the visual language of cinematography better than any other game I can think of, simply because it's entirely that language -- the cinematography isn't used as mortar between puzzles, dialogue scenes, or chunks of browsable text. Nor does the cinematography clash with the interactivity. A thematic transition will occur when you see an object; your attention is in the right place for it. Abbreviated scenes give you just enough time to look around. That sort of thing.

The story concerns a (black, female) FBI agent, circa 1992. You are sent with a partner to a small town in Virginia. (Hardcore X-Files and Twin Peaks fans will have to cover those narrative connections.) The mystery is a missing person, but (of course?) this is not a detective puzzle game.

So what is it? The narrative is, necessarily, a bit ambiguous. Not entirely -- some of the plot is meant to be clear, and is. But there's quite a bit of dream sequence, hallucination, flashback, and allegory; the designers are happy to let them blur into each other around the edges. With no dialogue or voice-over, you're left to put the pieces together, will you or no.

Yes, there are seams, and yes it leans on hallucinatory surreality more than it probably should. (Again, Twin Peaks fans may disagree.) But it's energetic, it's sincere, and it conveys a lot of emotion in its stylized way. I liked it.


Another database game! (I like this game format -- have since 1986.) But a pointed one. As the title implies, the database is a universal surveillance system run by the government. (Of a fictional Ruritanian nation, but that's thin drapery.) You are invited to be a volunteer investigator for the system, looking into a political bombing in "Freedom Plaza". The gimmick is that you are the human conscience of the system; it sees nothing until you decide to upload it. But, and on the flip side, your uploads are entirely contextless; you can upload one line of a conversation to makes someone look guilty or innocent. Truth is what you decide.

This game made me uncomfortable, and not for the reasons you might expect. It's last year's debate, see. An argument that a universal surveillance state is bad (or even good) based on an exploration of the effects? That's rational politics. We're past that now. (Relevant US and UK headlines omitted in despair.)

But I shoved the real world into a corner of my head... temporarily... and played through.

On its own terms, this is one smart construction of a game.

The gameplay comes in two basic phases: you search everything you have access to, then decide what to upload. (Uploading gives you access to more stuff, as the System expands its search to more targets. I mean people.) Both phases have just enough depth to be interesting without (much) risk of leaving the player stranded.

Search involves going through the game's simulated web pages, and (later) phone-taps and computer root-kits. You have to do a bit of clicking around to find everything; the UI cues you when a page needs more searching, so you won't get stuck. On each page, potential key phrases are highlighted. This is the decision phase; you can upload a chunk or mark it irrelevant. Sometimes two chunks contradict, and then you can only upload one of them. Again, the UI marks pages where you have work to do. The story advances when you've uploaded enough data for your government handler to arrest somebody or otherwise take action.

Thus, a potentially bewildering situation is constrained to a tight and reasonably clear model. It supports some nice variation -- technical hitches, a couple of real-time sequences, and twists at the end which I will not spoil. This suffices to keep the game fresh through a medium-short story of five chapters and about five hours of play time (my clock).

The weakness, I would say, is the early chapters of the game, which drop you in without much guidance as to your role. The System's goal is perfectly clear -- to suck up all data about everybody. (As personified by your smarmy handler, who reacts to every upload with gleeful suspicion.) And of course the game only progresses as you indict people. But I wasn't sure how much to care. Was it worth discarding evidence to protect this character or that one? Should I feel guilty about ruining their lives, or just play forward and see where the game was heading?

This laxity is more or less resolved by the end, which gets more personal and then offers you an explicit game-ending choice. (Nicely presented within the model you have learned.) But players may be turned off by the (apparent) uninvolvement up front. Of course, this is the whole point -- you are playing the disinterested all-powerful observer. Could the game pull you in without sacrificing that point? I'm not sure.

(Also, every time I decided someone was conspiring, more evidence turned up proving I was right. Is the engine conspiring to rewrite history for me, or am I just good at picking up cues? I would have to replay the game to be sure.)

Overall, I'm really impressed how this lays down a game model and then builds a story out of it. The actions you learn at the beginning remain consistent through the game, but they grow in important and relevance as the story progresses. This is not an easy trick. And then the story and characters are solid. A bit hammy, perhaps, but good enough to pull you through to the end.

One Night Stand

This is a short visual novel in the slice-of-life genre: you wake up naked in a strange girl's bedroom. You have a hangover and no clue how you got there.

(To be clear, my life has no slices that look remotely like this. I'm not very familiar with the visual novel genre, either, for that matter.)

The story has no genre twists (that I discovered!); it's a straightforward presentation of an awkward conversation. You can aim for more awkward or less awkward. You can snoop around to try to clue in about what happened. You can be gentlemanly or jerkly. Any way you cut it, the scene ends in about ten minutes and then you're on your way home.

This being the case, the game flies entirely on its writing and presentation. These do very well. The writing is convincing. (Somehow very, very British -- even before the girl uses the word "whilst" in cold blood.) The art uses rotoscoped animation (hand-drawn from live video, clearly) which is both charming and extremely expressive; the girl's face and body language carry as much weight as the dialogue.

The game offers a checklist of a dozen endings. I replayed to see three of them, but I didn't feel compelled to find the rest. The game structure wears a bit thin on repetition: many of your obvious choices are cut off and pulled back to the main story-thread. It's not that there are no interesting branches; rather it turns out that they're determined by the intervals where you're looking around the bedroom. You can look at just a couple of items at a time, and each one opens up a subject for the following conversation interval. So it's a more subtle structure than I expected, but searching it thoroughly would require a lot of experimentation. It would also require playing a bunch of unpleasant roles (the snoop, the bully, etc) and I just didn't want to go there.

At any rate, this tries to do something simple and constrained, but pulls it off with style.

Ladykiller in a Bind

A full-length visual novel about a high school graduation cruise. This is not to say that it is a slice-of-life story about high school. It's... well, it's not SF/fantasy; nor is it realistic contemporary fiction. I'm pretty sure the genre is anime, which is to say a sort of over-the-top implausible melodrama which doesn't pretend to be realistic but also doesn't include explicitly fantastical elements.

(Obviously there's SF/F anime too, but that's another genre again. Yes, there's a reason I'm off on genre again.)

So, in this case, we have twins swapping places, genius kids, millionaire kids, pirates, hackers, a voting game with a five-million-dollar prize, implausibly baroque social entanglements, and implausible amounts of baroque sex.

...Because the game is also smut. It is excellent smut. It features a diverse cast of characters -- I mean diverse in their attitudes, goals, and sexualities as well as their origins. Some of them want to bone you, and you can pursue these relationships or not. The sex scenes are themselves diverse, educational (if you have not encountered that diversity in your own life), well-written, and (not incidentally) really really hot.

Okay, it's good writing and it's good erotica. Is it a good game? I cannot answer this without talking about what I want out of games, which is complicated.

When I pick up a visual novel (or choice-based game in general), I tend to wrong-foot myself by asking "What am I trying to accomplish here?" Because of course the genre-convention answer is "Why ask me? Pick one of several available goals and pursue it, or, you know, just play and see what happens."

Not that these genres can't involve difficult challenges, or even explicit puzzles! They can; but that's something the author decided to add. (Just as, when we first talked about "puzzle-free IF" in the 90s, puzzles were something the author decided to omit.)

In fact Ladykiller has a couple of explicit challenges. You must try to keep people from suspecting your secret; you can try to win that social voting game. But these challenges mostly exist to serve the story framework. (E.g., the suspicion mechanic pushes you to interact with the character who can clear your suspicion stat.) The vote system, whether you care about it or not, is also currency for story entanglements. And the whole presentation of the game supports you thinking at the level of branching story outcomes. The game-mechanical stats are kept visible, and story choices are explicitly labelled with rewards and penalties. Story threads are tracked in scenes ("character X: scene 3 of 5") and you are regularly asked which thread you want to make progress on.

Again, this is all genre convention. Why am I going on about it? Well, as I've said, I haven't played many visual novels. Ladykiller is the first large one I've finished. So I'm trying to sort out what I think about them! (And you, lucky reader, get to follow along. Or else you rolled your eyes and bailed out four paragraphs ago. You decide.)

I think... I have never been entirely happy with the degree of control that choice-based games offer. A game that puts me into a single storyline: that's fine. The author dictates the story level, I control the moment-by-moment level. But when the core of the game is letting me steer the story branch-by-branch and chapter-by-chapter, I find that I'm not entirely on board with the options that are offered. I can get in the ballpark of what I want to do, but it's not quite there.

In my Ladykiller play-through, I wound up boinking three characters. I decided that X was a "never doing that again" experience; Y was "this was a very educational fling, thank you"; Z was "I have a giant crush on you and wish to keep you." And the game almost supported that. I wound up with an ending where X vanished and I got a negotiated OT3 relationship with Y and Z. And that's fine as narrative; it followed from the protagonist's scenes. But it wasn't actually what I wanted out of the story! The protagonist was way more interested in Y than I was, and I had no way to express that.

I could play another run, try to find "better" ending. That's what these games are built for -- exploring the potential space. But I'm never quite interested enough to spend the time. And that's my problem with choice-based games in a nutshell.

(Admittedly, the excellent smut is a strong motivation to replay, in this case...)

(I'm sure someone will argue that the negotiation between player control and author control is completely on-theme for the game. I would respond (a) it's not a negotiation after the author ships the game, I know that rodeo, kid, and (b) don't be a smartass. Although, okay, you're not wrong.)

Anyway. End of analytical tangent. Ladykiller is a solidly-constructed entry in the world of choice-based narrative IF. It is thoughtful and literate erotica and it's a lot of fun. I don't think it's my genre, but I still liked it.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Exactly what it says: a dramatization of the 1979 Iranian revolution, or moments of it, at least. You are a photojournalist, home from a year abroad, discovering that "home" is a word that covers a lot of ground. Contested ground.

Necessarily this kind of game serves two aims: the dramatic and the didactic. 1979 Revolution wants to immerse you in Iran-circa-1979; it wants to show you (the player, most likely a Westerner, in 2016) what that world was like; it wants to make you care. And it does these things successfully, but not smoothly. I felt like the game was always either in didactic mode or dramatic mode.

Didactic is a bit distanced. Here is Reza, the local boy, walking around examining the elements of his own life for your benefit. Yes, he's been out of town, and no, he doesn't act surprised at his home-town food or friends. The background material is wrapped up in an extra-diegetic journal that fills in as you go. But by the same token, it's a part of the game which is addressed to you, not to the protagonist.

As for the dramatic scenes -- the designers are clearly taking cues from the Telltale line. You have a lot of X/Y/Z dialogue choices, a lot of "Hossein will remember that!" tags, and frequent quick-timey interaction moments. These were, again, somewhat clunky. I failed quite a few scenes because I just didn't understand how to click-to-proceed. Eventually I figured out the game's UI conventions, and I got on well after that.

However, the question is not "how well-implemented is this story?"; it's "am I glad that someone told me this story?" And the answer is... well, it's not a happy story. I mean, it's not fun. You are involved in a chapter of Iran's history where people were arrested, tortured, or shot in the street by an autocratic regime. The game is about those people. It drops you into a torture prison, faces you with the (real-history) torturer-in-chief Asadollah Lajevardi.

It also drops you into Reza's life, with his ordinary-if-upper-class family, his friends, his city. You see his father's real-life home movies and his family photos. (Contributed by pointedly anonymous benefactors of the game project.) These are most honest and moving moments, I think -- more so than the cinematic scenes of being shot at or arrested.

It is an unashamedly biased presentation. From the inside, the revolution is idealistic, a fervent time of truth spoken to power. The protestors have been failed by the Shah's regime; they will be failed by the Islamic republic that is to come; they are betrayed by their own internal disagreements and the sins they will commit in the course of their revolution. The game nods to all of that. But it still casts them as heroes. It's hard to disagree.

So yes, I am glad that I have experienced this. I was in grade school in 1979; I remember hearing about the revolution as a distant, paper-thin shadow of an event. I remember that we didn't like Khomeini. I don't even remember how I knew that; it was schoolboy jokes, third-hand cultural miasma. This game is a window into the era for people like me -- a narrow slantwise window, but more than I had.

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