Thursday, January 24, 2019

Prince of Persia (2008) -- legacy?

I wanted some good jumpy climby fun, and I was all out of Tomb Raider, so I spent a few days replaying Prince of Persia. That's the 2008 reboot of the 2003 reboot of the series, if you're keeping track, and who isn't? It's on Steam, ten bucks.
Many many articles were written about this game and its audacious ending. I'm not certain I want to spoil it. It's a ten-year-old game, so you've probably played it; but it's a ten-year-old game, so maybe you haven't played it... okay, fine.
Big ol' SPOILER for Prince of Persia 2008: at the end, you and your NPC companion defeat the dark god -- at great cost. You are not happy with the cost. So, in a post-credits scene, you have the opportunity to undo it; and thus undo everything you've accomplished. Selfishly; self-destructively; tragically.
From a storytelling point of view, this worked great. It's in character; you're a wandering thief, you can be a selfish jerk. It's a sympathetic decision. It's plenty foreshadowed. The surprise is in the narrative construction: the character choice is not presented as a story choice. It's a force. Post-credits, you're stuck in a ruined, empty city. You've got nothing to do, literally mechanically nothing, but undo your success or turn off your computer.
Or jump off a cliff, I suppose. I didn't try that. But suicide is emphatically not in character.
So you can imagine all the reactions, negative and/or positive, from people who liked their story tropes traditional and/or subverted. Some of that is still online, you can read through it.
(Wikis remind me about the DLC episode which extended the story. I dimly remember playing this. Narratively, it did nothing but muck up the ending. You can skip it. It's not included in the Steam release anyhow.)
Ten years have gone by. What have we learned? What games have built on this idea?
I'm not talking about tragedy. Tragedy is cheap (and horror is cheaper). Two out of three walking simulators spring the reveal that you're dead, or everybody else is dead, or both.
I'm not talking about the trope where you've been terribly misled, and everything you've done is bad. Then you have to go back and fix it all, or perhaps destroy everything you've accomplished. That's a plot twist, but it still leads to a triumph. You figure out how to win and then you win.
I'm not talking about games where you can choose the good ending or the bad ending. You always know the difference.
I'm talking about a game where you can see a good ending (to the story), but the real ending (to the game) isn't that. The game says you walk on by and do something else. It's tragedy, but tragedy specifically in the interactive mode.
We normally think of this gimmick in horror games. Don't open that door! ...but you're stuck in the room, you have to open the door. Or solve the puzzle, or whatever. It raises tension or moves the plot forward; this is familiar. What's unique about PoP, I think, is using this gimmick to end the story. It's the "oh no" that you can't fix.
Soma goes down a related path. There's a good ending, but you don't get it because that's not how the universe works. Someone else gets it. It's a traditional tragedy, not something driven by game mechanics, but it left me with something of the same feeling. Perhaps because the body of the game does such a good job of showing you how the universe works.
It occurs to me that my old favorite Soul Reaver tries to pull the trick retroactively. (In the '90s!) The previous game, the original Blood Omen, ended with a good/evil choice -- cheap and unsubtle. Soul Reaver declares that your character chose evil. He decided to conquer the world as a vampire lord. Enjoy his thousand-year reign of blood and tyranny. But this does not occur within the play experience of either game.
I have to include Universal Paperclips. There's no "good ending", but the idea is the same. Everything you do in UP is awful; you do it because you know how to play idle-clicker games.
Oxenfree? Interesting suggestion. The original game is a tragedy; you are trapped. The "new game plus" extended ending offers the possibility that you can escape, but at the cost of undoing everything that you've experienced. This doesn't release evil(tm), but it nullifies all the relationships and character moments that you've become invested in through the game. That counts as far as I'm concerned.
What other examples can we think of? What narrative games mess with the concept of game-victory itself? (As distinct from "happy endings".)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: my favorites

There were my favorites among the IGF narrative finalists. I don't mean the best -- although the games I liked did well. I mean the games that I finished with a big grin on my face. The ones that spoke directly to me and said "Zarf, I am what you're here for." Or possibly "I am here for you." (IF authors have trouble telling first-person from second-person pronouns.)
  • Return of the Obra Dinn
  • Seers Isle
  • Wandersong
Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.

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.)

Monday, January 7, 2019

NarraScope 2019: still seeking talk proposals

Hello! Happy 2019! I know, this is my second blog post of 2019, I forgot. Rabbit vorpal rabbit.
Let me remind everybody that 2019 is the year of NarraScope 2019, the IF/narrative/adventure gaming conference which we will be running in Boston in June. Cambridge, I should say -- it will be on MIT campus.
Let me also remind you (this is the real point here) that we are still accepting proposals for NarraScope talks! And panels, presentations, lightning talks, and so on. If you're advancing the state of the art in interactive narrative, or just doing stuff you're excited to talk about, please sign up.
The deadline for proposals is January 18th, which is just under two weeks away. We hope to hear from you.
NarraScope celebrates the diverse voices of game design. We aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accountable space for all participants.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: something notable

The IGF finalists have been announced. It's an extremely awesome and diverse slate of games. I'm not going to try to fit them all into one post.
Today, I'm picking out games that might not have gotten a lot of attention -- but they did something narrative interesting, or clever, or just had nice writing that I want to point at.
  • A Case of Distrust
  • The Hex
  • Watch Me Jump
  • levedad
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except A Case of Distrust; I bought that one earlier this year.)

Friday, December 28, 2018

"And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

I took some of my holiday time to re-read The Dark is Rising. It's still good. Shorter than I remember.
Prompted by nothing but the season, I began to wonder: what sort of game might be made of this book?
It must be twenty years since I last read through The Dark is Rising. It was written in 1973, long before fantasy -- much less children's fantasy -- became the battle-hardened marketing category we know today. The devouring gyre of media resurrection has almost entirely overlooked it. (The 2007 movie was reviled by absolutely everybody, as far as I can tell, and vanished in a knot of shame.)
So perhaps nobody has even considered the idea of transforming the story into interactive form.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Cragne Manor is available to play

Cragne Manor, the absurdly monumental and monumentally absurd collaborative tribute to classic horror IF, is now available to play.

I mentioned this back in June:
A strong female character wanders the halls of a decrepit mansion. Her husband is in danger. She has to help him. Each room into which she points her flickering flashlight teems with arcane danger and unspeakable history. Each room has been designed and written by a different author.
The project was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a twentieth-anniversary tribute to Anchorhead. Anchorhead is Michael Gentry's seminal work of Lovecraftian IF. I played it twenty years ago (obviously) when the revival of IF was a new and shining star in the sky. (Michael Gentry has now released an updated, polished, illustrated version of Anchorhead; you can buy it on Steam and Itch. The original release remains free to play at IFDB.)
I remember Anchorhead fondly, and so, as it turns out, does everyone else. Eighty-four people showed up to contribute rooms to Cragne Manor. The author list includes many of the great names of interactive fiction -- including Michael Gentry.
It's glorious. It's a mess. It's a glorious mess. You have to understand: Cragne Manor was built exquisite-corpse style. Each author worked independently, not knowing what any other author was doing. Ryan and Jenni designed the underlying map, and handed out assignments like "your room must contain a library book" or "your room must have a puzzle that requires object X and reveals object Y."
Ryan and Jenni have labored mightily to compile all the contributed source code together. Inform 7, and IF design techniques in general, work best with a unified vision. (This is why IF-inspired MUDs always felt patchy and underimplemented.) If you ask eighty-four people to design rooms without even talking to each other... well, which do you mean: the iron key, the iron key, the rusty iron key, the iron key, or the large iron key? For a start. The organizers have done amazing work just to get the thing playable from start to finish.
The result, inevitably, is a wild mish-mash of tone, difficulty, and style. That was Ryan's grand vision; that's what he got. To quote the introductory note:
This resulted in a game that is ridiculous. The world the authors created is inconsistent and often nonsensical. Commands that are necessary to progress in one room might not work anywhere else. Many of the puzzles are, by ordinary human standards, deeply unfair. By ordinary human standards, this is not a good game.
Except I disagree; it's a great game, for what it is. It's a grand collection of vignettes by the biggest collective of IF authors ever gathered in one fictional Vermont town. It's a demonstration of varied styles, varied approaches to puzzle design, and varied takes on the idea of "Lovecraftian/Anchorheadian game". It's creepy and funny and gross and poetic. It's got simple rooms and inordinately complex rooms. It's got bugs. (There will always be bugs.)
It's also... well... enormous. I said that already. This thing will swallow teams of experienced IF players for weeks -- if you can find a team of experienced IF players who aren't on the author list. Or even if you are on the author list! I've only seen the first little bit; I have no idea how to reach my own room. The playtesting group took several weeks to finish the game, and that was working together.
And yet, somehow, Cragne Manor hangs together. I have no idea how. Maybe because IF games always feel like a strangely jointed reality -- little self-contained rooms floating as bubbles on a map. We're used to filling in the gaps and visualizing a world. Somehow, even when the landscape shifts surreally from one room to the next, the world is still there.
If you have ever had any love of interactive fiction, give Cragne Manor a look. It's a cross-section of my world for the past twenty years.