Friday, January 11, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: mixed reactions

And now, IGF finalists that I didn't get into.
This is tricky to introduce. I'm not saying these games were bad. I'm not even saying that I had a bad time playing them. Rather, these are games that are aimed at an audience which isn't quite me.
So you're about to sit through why they didn't work for me. But this really is more audience-analysis than game-analysis.
  • Unavowed
  • Genital Jousting
  • Hypnospace Outlaw
(Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Unavowed, which I bought earlier this year.)

Unavowed

You may recall that I wrote a long blog post after playing the first five minutes of Unavowed. The cold open on the rooftop raised a host of questions by playing off the genre conventions of urban fantasy (and character-based interactive narrative). I did not, at the time, entirely trust the authors to have done that on purpose.
Now that I've finished the game, I can assure you that they did that on purpose. But not entirely successfully. I'll avoid spoilers and just say that their last-act twist, while addressing the questions that the opening raised, didn't really follow the clues that it laid down. It was supposed to be an "of course" moment, but my reaction was more "well I suppose".
But the last-act twist isn't the whole of a game, nor should it be. How is Unavowed overall?
Solid. Not brilliant, at any point, but nowhere fatally flawed either. It's an old-school adventure game without the (terrible) old-school puzzles. This doesn't mean it has fantastic puzzles; it means that it tones the puzzles way down in favor of characters and story structure.
Structure is where it puts in the most effort, really. Unavowed is a set of mini-mysteries built around a team of urban-weird-bollocks hunters. You have wide latitude to play chapters in the order you choose, with the sidekicks you want to bring along. (You meet the sidekicks as you go, but by midgame they're all on board.) This is all rigorously carried through -- every scene can be completed with any combination of sidekicks (and their individual talents). This is very impressive at the design level, but it makes the story itself rather clunky, because half the items you find are red herrings. (E.g., if you don't bring the ghost-talker along, any ghost you meet is just a mute presence. And so on.) In a few cases a character has to awkwardly excuse himself in order to let someone else tag in and advance the plot.
So the play experience is a cycle of talk to the witnesses, examine the scenery, solve a light puzzle (whichever of the available ones matches your current sidekicks), and repeat. The chapters feel fairly short (because you're only hitting half the designed puzzles/interactions in any given playthrough). It works, but again, it never feels brilliant.
I'll say the same for the writing. It's a nice variety of characters. It's the standard urban-fantasy mix of every mythology you can think of, all flung into any city you like as long as it's New York or London. In this case, New York. Can I complain? I have Harry Dresden and Peter Grant novels stacked up on the shelves, so no, I can't complain. But it still feels lazy. In particular, I'm becoming allergic to classic demon/exorcism tropes without Catholicism, and fairy-tale djinn tropes without Islam. Plenty of better-informed folks than me have pointed out the problems here.
(At least Peter Grant's stories are grounded in London, with all that city's deep sense of history. As for Harry Dresden, his shine has rather worn off after seventeen-whatever books of faffing around Chicago.)
The ending is, once again, a structural marvel, tying together all the hard decisions you've made throughout the game into a series of interlocking challenges. The spreadsheets must have been voluminous. But, once again, this just doesn't translate into a very engaging play experience. You apply the resources (Hard Decisions 1 through N) to the puzzles (1 through N) and it pays off with the good ending. Or the range of endings.
So I don't know. It unquestionably does what the designers wanted, and the designers' goals were ambitious. The game works. I had a good time and the gears never slipped. You can push the backstory button for each character and advance your relationship meter. I just feel like I admire the machinery more than the result.

Genital Jousting

You are a sentient cock with balls and an anus. The designers have committed to this gimmick with a fierce and unswerving dedication. Every interaction you have in the game consists of sticking yourself into something, squirting something, farting something, or sliding around on a trail of lube. You live in a world of sentient cocks, and you are a dick with an asshole, and also you are an asshole and a dick. That's the game.
There's some kind of multiplayer mode, but I only played the single-player story. This involves your middle-aged angst over not having a date for your high-school reunion. You go out to try to find true love. If you can't find a girlfriend -- girls are also cocks, by the way -- you'd like to get laid. Failing that, you'd make do with any scrap of self-respect you can dredge up. Spoiler: it's not going to go well.
I'm describing this crudely, because -- well, obviously. It's a crude game. It glories in this. It leaves no dick joke unsprung.
The implementation is extremely solid, to be sure. The Stanley-ish narrator guides you around, and comments on everything you do, but also comments on everything you try or fail to do. There's a whole lot of sneaky reactivity. The designers really do everything possible with their environment and interface, and it all works smoothly. Allow for the fact that sliding around as a cock is a squishy, rubbery experience which is supposed to be frustrating and hard to aim. Realistically.
So I admired that, and I played until I was tired of the gag, and then I rolled my eyes and put the game aside.
After some discussion with other judge-folks, I gave it another chance. Their argument was, okay, this game is not aimed at you, but it does have a point. It's a relentless deconstruction of toxic masculinity and the pure blind selfishness of seeing the world as something to fuck. People like this exist. The game is aimed at them, people who could conceivably clue in and learn something.
Will they? Will this game help? I have no idea. The whole point of being selfish is not caring what anybody else thinks unless it's flattering. This game isn't flattering. The dick does not find true love.
But the game isn't... it's not contemptuous, which is something. I have a lot of anger about selfish assholes, myself, the past few years. I can't get into the discussion; my contempt shows, and why would anyone listen? This game gets into the discussion. It's not subtle; it's about a loser, a self-blinkered loser who cannot move outside his own head. The game is very clear about that. I don't think it's talking down, though. It's inside that dickhead's head, looking out. It's not a pretty view, but it admits the possibility of change. Maybe it will stick.

Hypnospace Outlaw

An allegory about corporate censorship of the Internet. Or so I assume. You are a contractor being fed funbucks to enforce the company's draconian terms of service. The first couple of missions are about bland copyright pettifoggery and adware. Will it spiral into the realm of serious social issues like hate mobs and the destruction of journalism? Will you wind up, as the title implies, turning on your masters and becoming a hero of the people? I suspect either or both, but I've only put in a couple of hours, and it's not yet clear.
The engine looks like trash, but it's sneakily clever about it. It's the first surge of the Web -- 1999 in all its neon-pixel, animated-GIF glory. Which is to say: trash. But the creators have worked in an impressive range of paleo-Web interactions. You can visit personal, fan, and corporate sites; download wallpapers and music; install hacky apps. There's a Web easter egg hunt! (Ah memory.) Your desktop gets cluttered with icons. When you get hit with malware, your desktop gets messed up. And every web page looks like it was built with a cheesy Geocities-ish GUI tool. (Which, to be sure, is exactly what the (real-life) creators used. The tool ships with the game.)
So I see potential here. But I am having a hard time mustering the enthusiasm to keep playing. The problem with evoking old, ugly web sites is that they're ugly. And they blink a lot. You are investigating shallow teenagers and equally shallow net-obsessed adults, at least at first. You have nobody to play for. The closest you get to continuing story characters seem to be the Winklevossian tech CEOs, and they're antagonists-in-waiting.
This territory was all plumbed two years ago in Orwell. That was an icy-grim take on corporate data-mining, entirely unlike Hypnospace's nostalgic cartooniness. But Orwell pulled me in. Hypnospace leaves me wincing and wishing I could go look at something else.
Again, it's an audience problem. I'm old. 1999 happened, I was there; but to me it was just a regrettable interlude of <blink> tags, nestled between Mosaic and Flash. 1999 isn't my formative vision of computers when they were magical and new. (That's Tron, 1982, thank you very much.) But I can see that a lot of people are going to get a big kick out of this.

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