Monday, January 13, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: interactive storybooks

Ever since Device 6, we've had this notion of a game category, but there hasn't been a label for it. I've started saying "interactive storybook"; I doubt that will catch on, but it's what I've got. It's characterized by text with whimsical interactions. No full simulated environment. Often puzzles.
Then there was Gorogoa, which is the same thing except wordless. So I say "interactive picturebook". That's broader, of course -- you could count Plug & Play, maybe even Hidden Folks. I'm willing to be fuzzy about it.
Quite a few of these this year! Here are my favorites:
  • Arrog
  • Song of Bloom
  • Alt-Frequencies
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Alt-Frequencies, which I bought and reviewed earlier in the year.)


  • by LEAP Game Studios & Hermanos Magia -- game site (not yet released)
A short interactive picturebook about stars, rain, and capybaras. Mostly wordless, mostly monochrome.
This is at its best when it's asking you for little thematic interactions -- click to light a star or blow away a cloud. It bogs down when it throws you into puzzles. These are also thematic, and never difficult, but I felt like I was being kicked out of the story to figure out some puzzle mechanics.
And yes, my world is full of unapologetic puzzle storybook games. I've played Fool's Errand and Gorogoa and everything in between. I've written games like that. I love 'em. But there's a certain texture to the feast-of-puzzles game. You have to set the table. Occasional interactions and an abstract storyline (not obviously about puzzles or mystery-solving or anything) don't set that up.
I don't know, it's a subtle thing. I shouldn't make a big deal of it. The animations are all charming and I'm a fan of capybaras. The story is kind of impenetrable, but that's way better than the big clanging symbolism of too many wordless narrative games. I'll take it.
(Note: The web site is not yet live. I understand that Arrog was initially released on Humble and will be in general release soon.)

Song of Bloom

A puzzly storybook. I really liked the interaction model: it presents itself as a minimal tap-to-continue comic book, but then you find clues on secret bits you can tap, draw, or otherwise fiddle. These unlock new branches in a tree of possible action paths. Each branch is quite short, but contains more clues for more branches, so you're constantly starting over and finding new spaces to explore.
The interactions themselves are the usual "try anything and everything" selection, but with a satisfying range of styles and presentations. Every scene is novel and fun to play with. Although multi-touch input was weirdly underused -- did the authors think that was too out-of-the-box? In a tablet game? Which hit the inevitable gyro-sensor and volume-button scenes? (I usually find those annoyingly immersion-breaking, yes, I'm looking at you, The Room 1.) (To be fair, in this game, they were adequately clued.)
Regrettably, the narrative this toy is wrapped around is utterly bland. It's the kind of vague political/spiritual statements ("We could see the signs") which might serve as the thematic core of a story, but are not in any way a story themselves. No voice, no character, no bite.
I bogged down on an unclear clue late in the game. Slept on it, picked it back up, took another look. Turns out I had not understood the overview diagram correctly, so I was missing clues! A genuine metapuzzle-solving moment. Once over that hump, I reached the end in short order.
I will grant that the ending is not vacuous. The work is meant as a statement, and the closing line carries it there. My complaint stands, however -- the text is absolutely generic, distanced, and unaffecting. Poetry can do more than this.


This doesn't really fit into the "interactive storybook" model. It's closer to the "lost phone" idea, except that you're listening to your radio. And they're all call-in shows. You can't speak, but you can record a clip from one show and deliver it to another. The hosts respond appropriately. This is extremely clever! And I'm dropping it into this post because I couldn't find a better place.
I played Alt-Frequencies back in September; you can read my comments from then. The summary is that this is short, lightweight, and a lot of fun -- the voice actors are having a great time. It doesn't really manage to be about anything, despite a gimmick of time loops and a Brexit-ish public policy debate. So: fluff, but you might as well enjoy it anyway.

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