Wednesday, January 11, 2017

More 2017 IGF nominees

More assorted comments on games!

Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.

(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)

Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.

In this post:
  • Rusty Lake: Roots
  • Able Black
  • Neptune Flux
  • She Who Fights Monsters
  • Islands: Non-Places
  • Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
  • Mu Cartographer
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone

Rusty Lake: Roots

You explore a creepy family's genealogy in their creepy house, down through the generations. I enjoyed this series back when it was Flash room-escape games. ("Cube Escape" was the original series title.) The author has kept the same puzzle style, but revamped the formula for mobile by wrapping up a bunch of escape "chapters" as one game.

I still enjoy them. The author is good at the creepy-surreal tone, and the puzzles have enough variety that they don't feel repetitive. There's a postgame puzzle sequence -- not quite what you'd call a metapuzzle, but it gives a really nice "ooh more to explore" feeling to the experience.

The one caveat is that the creepy sometimes degenerates into sophomoric nudge-wink innuendo. To be fair, the series always had a tendency towards cheap body-horror shock -- chopped-off fingers and popped-out eyes. Now that's been extended to include childbirth and wanking jokes. Is that worse? I roll my eyes more, definitely.

Able Black

I always love a mystery-interface interactive story, and I enjoyed this one. The visual design was striking and the story was pretty good. It's the "AI humanity test" story -- a SF trope which I admit is getting seriously overused in the past couple of years of gaming -- but it's well done.

The weak point were the puzzles, which were weak and unthematic. They did not feel like assessments that the android protagonist would undergo; neither did they feel like allegorical challenges within the theme of developing emotion and empathy. They didn't build on each other in an interesting explorable way, or with a metapuzzle. They were just a bunch of randomly-selected riddles thrown in for pacing. Pacing is important, but this is not the right way to go about it.

On the other hand, the game redeems itself somewhat in the "postgame" (whatever you call the puzzles after the five main chapters). I only got a little way into these, but they were integrated with the story and seemed to be interestingly explorable. Although, on the other hand yet again, the dexterity challenge was more of a nuisance than was warranted.

Neptune Flux

You operate an undersea waldo, collecting resources to preserve humanity after some kind of civilization-destroying event.

This is a puzzle game, but it's more of a homebrew action-adventure than a simple Myst clone. Oh, I suppose action-adventure is the wrong term -- no fighting, no jumping -- but you have a space to roam in and a couple of systematic tasks to occupy your time in between completing the main story beats.

It sounds like padding when I put it like that, but in fact those tasks pace out the game pretty nicely. It's still a short story, no question. But it's a short story that lets you poke around at your own pace; you can decide whether to rush to the next objective or scour the sea floor for a while.

(The traditional first-person adventure game would handle that pacing by flooding you with visuals: detail, detail, detail. And, you know, I'm a sucker for that. But there are other approaches, and this one is perfectly valid.)

All that said: the story does not work particularly well. It's trying to hand you a lot of concepts -- a post-catastrophe world, your job, your mother, AI, failed space colonies, alien artifacts, shipwrecks from various periods of history. But none of these really have a chance to settle in or feel real. I suppose this is where more visual detail would have helped! Or more game mechanics, or more characters... more engaging voice actors... more of anything to anchor the story. Lacking those, the story beats fail to connect up or have impact.

I feel like the designers tried to take a moderate approach -- just enough of everything -- but the total falls short.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Neptune Flux.)

She Who Fights Monsters

Last year I had trouble evaluating Undertale because Final Fantasy just isn't a big part of my gaming history. I recognize the tropes, but the way that the game riffs on them largely go over my head. Also, it's enormous so I never saw the thing as a whole.

SWFM is a simpler and shorter game with the same approach. Which is good, on the one hand, because I finished it and I pretty well understand what it's doing with its JRPG riffs. But, by the same token, it's less ambitious.

The topic is child abuse, and the game tackles it by means of traditional JRPG gameplay. That's interesting. And the story is clear and honestly offered. But the game doesn't do a whole lot with it beyond the basic concept of "let's present an emotional contrast using JRPG tropes". (Contrast, that is, between Jenny's fantasy life in games and her wounded reality.)

Perhaps I just wanted more story arc for Jenny. Her path in the story is essentially reactive and static. The new-game-plus options are trying to open this up, I think, but they feel awkwardly tacked on. The player is asked to re-experience (much of) the game, but in a distanced lens-of-memory way. The repetition mutes the impact. Or, I should say, the frame is inside out: I want the story to begin with mature Jenny reflecting on her history, and then ramp upwards to the raw impact of her early life. That's the "traditional" way you'd tell this story. But then of course the "final choice" of how you live your life would come at the beginning of the game, which is weird. I don't know! It's a hard problem.

Islands: Non-Places

That was a thing. It was just my kind of thing. 11/10 best puppy.

I'm not sure what else I have to say about this! It's a series of wordless images -- snippets of the urban landscape -- which you are invited to provoke into some kind of reaction. When you succeed, you move on to the next one. It's not a storybook; it's not a story at all; but it's involving and entirely charming.

I am going to tie this back to the genre of nonsense children's art: Graeme Base, David Wiesner, Shaun Tan. Nonsense which embodies a wordless looking-glass-logic. That's what this is. Not entirely new in videogames (anybody remember Haruhiko Shono?) but we can certainly use more of it.

Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation

This is a promo for an episodic game. I saw the Kickstarter go by but I didn't investigate it at the time. Now I see why people are talking about it. It's a smart take on the "text adventure" idea.

You wake up in a dark place with only a computer terminal to connect you to the outside world. You have to steer your friends through laboratory/complex/base by hacking on the computers that they connect you to.

If I put on my IF theorist hat, I would say that it's not equivalent to a full-on parser-based IF game. This is not a complaint; Code 7 goes off on its own thread, exploring the idea of a computer CLI rather than an object-based world model. That is entirely appropriate for the story it wants to tell. And it finds appropriate explorable mechanics within the CLI concept: the computers have a consistent (but expandable) set of commands, and the database search is a uniformly-available choice which the player can go back at will. There are also hacking scenes (which use a virtual map as a chase/puzzle environment), and scenes where the characters are chased by robots (same idea, but on a real-world map).

Altogether, a great pile of gameplay. Very polished presentation, too. My only complaint is that the real-time chase segments were a bit rough. The final hacking challenge took me a lot of tries -- enough that it wound up feeling tedious, rather than thrilling.

Now, the story is very old hat indeed -- a pile of sci-fi cliches. (With lanterns hung on them.) But the design is interesting, and the authors have the opportunity to take the story to more interesting places in future episodes.

Mu Cartographer

Excellent and indescribable!

I realize Mu Cartographer is pretty much aimed at my hot buttons: it's the love child of an abstract fiddly-toy and an explorable puzzle box. With bits of narrative about a psychogeographical landscape. I won't go so far as to say it's a story, but there's enough narrative text to provide a sense of place. Without that, it really would be an entirely abstract puzzle.

(Okay, there are snapshots of famous real-world landmarks. But those wouldn't sell sense-of-place on their own.)

My design quibble is that the various tasks aren't well balanced. There are three general categories of Things To Do (after "understand what to do".) One is pure grind (unless I missed a clue?) The second is easy (you can go straight to the solution); the third is hard (requires experimentation but you can tell when you're close). So you go back and forth between slog and non-slog, which makes the game pacing uneven. I finished it, but I felt that I'd spent too long on the job -- that is, too much blind-hunting time. Not the fun kind.

But this is a quibble. I enjoyed the heck out of this and would play six more just like it. ("Just like it" in the sense of each being completely different and unique, of course.)


A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre. This is a beautiful example of that genre. The artwork takes a spare, minimal style and lifts it to breathtaking levels. Backgrounds, animation, lighting -- gorgeous.

The platforming mechanics are familiar terrain, but well-executed. You start with running and jumping, and move on to several other mechanics. These are (mostly) well-introduced and then mixed up in (mostly) reasonable variations; there's plenty of variety to keep your interest. Variety, heck -- the game physics achieves some brain-twisting weirdness.

The strength of this game is visual (of course) and... I don't want to say "world-building". The pieces do not fit together to build a world. But each piece is, individually, razor-sharp -- a lucid shape of game mechanics, scenery, and visual tone which conveys a situation.

The weakness of this game is that sometimes you just have no idea what it's trying to get you to do. You can screw around until you figure it out. I did. But you might die six times in a row while not learning anything. It's just a little too eager, sometimes, in introducing a new mechanic that's hidden in the scenery. Or maybe the scenery is a bit too distractingly artistic.

(They usually add enough blinky lights to clue you in, but not always.)

Inside is getting a lot of chatter as a superlative narrative game. It is a superlative game. But not narrative. Sorry! A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. This has a starting point and a stopping point. That's not narrative.

As I said, the pieces don't fit together. Wordless platformers develop character, if they ever do, by giving you short-term goals which add up to game-spanning achievements. This game has the short-term goals, but they don't add up to anything. "You kept running." Not running to anything, or from anything. The threat in any given scene is clear, but you know no more at the end than you did at the beginning. I'll grant a thematic consistency -- the game is about control, and maybe that speaks to the platformer genre. But theme is not enough.

I loved Inside but it did not speak to me. It has a deep willingness to be nastily perverse, to bother the player. I admire that, and I've written works in that mode... but it's not the same as narrative.

Burly Men at Sea

Three burly sailors go on an odyssey. Then, if you like, they do it again!

It is undeniably adorable. The interaction is playful and distinctive -- more so when I got the iPad version. (Mouse control just doesn't suit the thing.) The writing is simple but sharp; I was immediately able to hear the characters' voices.

The visual design is great. The soundtrack is great (and makes me laugh). There's a nifty gimmick where you can buy any run-through as a printed storybook.

I feel like the game falls short of greatness, however. It asks for repeated play-throughs, but it doesn't particularly reward them. Scenes have first-time and subsequent-times variations, but no more than that. (That I saw.) They don't build on each other as you discover more of the map.

If the third run-through added as much as the second -- and so on, to some higher purpose -- this would have been one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it is a delightful toy that runs down too soon.

A Normal Lost Phone

  • (Accidental Queens / Rafael Martínez Jausoro, Estelle Charrié)
  • IGF entry page

A database game presented as the cell phone of a teenager in small-town America. As you explore the photos, email, text messages, and so forth, you uncover layers of Sam's life and how the phone came to be lost.

I expected this to be a fairly static environment. But you discover passwords and so on as you play, each of which unlocks a new section of the game. There aren't many of these; the story could be described as four gated "chapters" plus an epilogue. But then, the game is quite short overall, so it's not out of balance. The "puzzle" moments are all plausibly different, which wouldn't be possible in a longer game of this sort.

The designers do a good job of packing high school life into the non-linear environment of a phone. Exploration is gated by passwords, as I said -- but even within those chapters, you necessarily encounter the story piecewise. Messages and email are grouped by person, so you can't just browse Sam's entire life chronologically. This gives a nice putting-the-pieces-together feel even above the puzzle structure.

I won't be spoiling much if I say that the narrative turns into a coming-out story. The later sections involve a dating app and a support web forum. Again, these manage to convey a lot of information -- perhaps to the point of didacticism, but then I'm not close to the topic. If you are younger or these issues are personal to you, I think you'll appreciate the depth of detail.

The result is sweet and doesn't outstay its welcome. My only quibble is that the "American" setting is shaky -- not so much the character voices, which seem fine, but in random details like European date formatting and implausible town names.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Chris (Jan 12, 2017 at 9:25 AM):

The reference point for Undertale is more Earthbound than Final Fantasy, but same difference :).

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