2018 IGF nominees: fascinating experiments

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Tagged: reviews, where the water tastes like wine, narrative, interactive fiction, getting over it, igf, tacoma, reigns her majesty, if, the sexy brutale

Reiterating: The IGF finalists are out! I was on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.

In today's post, the games that were really interesting but not necessarily entirely successful. This is not to say they were unsuccessful! Some of them go all-out in a particular direction which doesn't ring my particular bell. Some of them have tremendous flair and polish but also have a gap that bothers me. They're all worth playing and discussing.

  • Tacoma
  • The Sexy Brutale
  • Reigns: Her Majesty
  • Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
  • Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

(I played free review copies of The Sexy Brutale, Reigns, and WTWTLW. The others I paid for.)


Ah, Tacoma. I wrote an enormous post about Tacoma already.

The short form, in case your memory is short: Tacoma was a fascinating experiment that I liked every individual piece of, but there must have been a piece missing because I didn't find the whole very compelling.

I liked the videolog mechanic of rewinding scenes and following characters around. I liked freezing the scenes and "hacking" the AR displays for background info. I liked the corporate-dystopia setting -- I mean, in that unpleasantly-familiar-reality way. I thought the characters and their variously revealed histories were cool. The big disaster plot should have been a hook, but it wasn't. Why not? Why did Gone Home work better? That's what made the post enormous.

The one-line answer, I think, is that there was too much narrative separation between your "real" mission (tied to the station AI) and the stuff you spent the bulk of the game investigating (the station disaster). The disaster plot felt too foregone, and the AI plot didn't tie into or make retroactive sense of anything you'd encountered.

This back-seat analysis doesn't get us anywhere, though. The upshot is that I want to see a lot of games take apart Tacoma's ideas and try them in different stories, because they're great ideas and don't deserve to be thrown out just because Tacoma has a question mark next to it.

The Sexy Brutale

You are trapped in a madhouse resort hotel where the staff are systematically murdering the guests. A blood-red apparition bids you save them all, rewinding time every time you succeed or fail. It's a time-loop adventure game with a very classical interaction model -- all rooms and doors and interesting objects which you can use in various places. I could absolutely see this being prototyped in Inform 7.

The hotel environment is wonderful, with an over-the-top cartoony-gothic tone. This is not primarily due to the art, mind you -- although the visuals are clean and effective. Rather, it's the swinging soundtrack and the text descriptions that really sell the world. (You can examine everything. I wasn't kidding about the parser-IF feel!)

The game mechanics are really well done. This is hard to talk about without spoilers, so I'll just say that you start out with some simple interations (rewinding time, listening at keyholes) and each one is revisited interestingly as you move through the storyline. Every time you save a guest you gain an ability. So the game opens up in a somewhat Metroid-y way, but still within the time-loop framework. Sorry, I know that's vague. I was impressed, is the point.

The interface is also beautifully thought out. As you learn more about each character's actions, their movements appear on a map which you can browse at will. So following (or avoiding!) a particular character through the looped day is very easy. What could be a confusing multi-threaded script becomes clear and easy to understand.

The weak spot, I'm afraid, is the storyline. This is meant to be a story-centric game. But you spend all your time engaged with the mechanics, to the point where the characters are almost entirely sidelined. Each guest-NPC only gets a few lines of dialogue -- which you mostly hear through keyholes, as the scenario forbids you from interacting with anyone directly. (Bar a few brief cut-scenes.) So you never have a chance to get to know any of the characters. They're meant to be your friends, and their deaths should drive the story, but they wind up feeling like a sequence of cardboard cutouts being discarded. Really, the best-portrayed characters are the poker-faced butlers who scuttle and mutter and arrange the murders.

The story wraps itself up in a suitably dramatic finale, and the game mechanics support it in a beautifully twisty way. Unfortunately, the lack of character engagement robs the whole thing of its weight.

It's a satisfying adventure game experience, and I'll happily recommend giving it a shot. But the story would need a whole lot more character time in order to resonate.

Reigns: Her Majesty

I played Reigns last year and it was cute. It was funny. Poking around in it was interesting. But I never felt like I had much control; I just bounced from death to death. I certainly never came close to solving the "curse" puzzle, if it was a puzzle.

This new Reigns is a worthy followup and I have exactly the same responses. It's cute. The writing has a wonderful dry wit. It has, I think, more discoverable secrets -- at least I was able to unlock a fair number of them, by memorizing specific moves to be applied at specific moments. But I had no ability to go looking for those moments. I had to bounce from death to death, waiting for something new to appear. Eventually I got tired of that and put it down for a while.

I picked it back up when the game was released. (I originally started with a pre-release version which had some bugs.) This time I made more progress; I played through to one of the endings (the eclipse sequence).

I'm happier with the game now; the ending sequence gives it some narrative oomph that wasn't visible from the middle. (And I now have more faith that there are more endings which will be similarly satisfying.) Also, I have a clearer view of the women-and-power theme that underlies the whole game. The theme works, and I get the sense (from twitter-chatter) that it resonates strongly with a lot of players.

However, my original complaint still holds: there's little sense of actively achieving anything in the game. (The same was true with the first Reigns.) I believe there are interesting story paths hidden in the twelve astrological signs. When I found a clue that explicitly described one, I was able to go find it. But I only found a couple of such clues! All the other paths are hidden until you trip over them.

That means the gameplay is largely about stumbling through the same events over and over, waiting for a clue to turn up. And since the events turn up randomly, even if you think of a new way to react to one, you still have to bang through an indefinite number of cards to try your idea.

Or put it this way: the game gets uninteresting before it gets interesting.

Maybe the pacing works for some people, but I find it frustrating and I'm not really motivated to search out more endings.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

I know three kinds of people.

  • People who have played Getting Over It for twenty hours, are still playing it, and say it's the game of the year.

  • People who have played Getting Over It for twenty minutes, threw it across the room, and said "Ha ha, no thanks."

  • People who say "I've heard of that. It's a platformer, right?"

I am in the second group of people. I have a sneaking suspicion that the third group are the happiest.

(I also have a sneaking suspicion that I would be better at it if the controls were inverted. I have no desire to test this theory, however.)

The game is intensely committed to being what it is, and what it is is frustrating. I admire that but I don't want to play it. Not my kink.

The narration is another story, er, as it were -- and I was supposed to be judging the narrative quality, after all. But I never got past the third or fourth audio snippet, so what am I supposed to say? The game's primary selling point is that it does its best to keep the narration (and everything else after that stupid oar) away from the player. This makes it not a narrative game, as far as I'm concerned.

(I watched a speed-run on Youtube, but it skipped all the narration.)

Okay, I'm being overly snarky. The opening text was interesting. It's an obvious callback to The Beginner's Guide -- except that instead of making fake games about a fictional game designer, Foddy makes an actual game(*) and talks about an actual game designer, in relation to his real-life self. This is a brilliant stroke and I give it full credit. But it's not my kink.

(* Fun for actual humans(**), I mean.)

(** Not me. But people I've had dinner with. Two different people I've had two different dinners with.)

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

(Disclaimer: I know some of the writers who contributed to ...Tastes Like Wine, and I work directly with one of them. So I called an abstention on this one -- I omitted it from my IGF ballot. I still wrote about it, though.) (Also, it hasn't shipped yet. I am describing a pre-release version.)

I love many things about ...Tastes Like Wine. I love the music. I love the voice performances. I love the sense of America as vast yet continuous, fragmented-connected, compassable but not encompassable. You can travel across this country but you can't see back to where you started.

I love the pace of travel, which I'm sure is the single thing players complain about most. As with Sunless Sea, you wouldn't value the stories if you didn't accept the stricture of distance between them. The mechanic of whistling to walk very slightly faster gives you something to do with your fingers, although it could maybe be more landscape-integrated. (Some kind of ghost tokens become visible in the world as you whistle?)

What I love, primarily, is that the stories are an unending, shifting tapestry. And they're all good. I mean, they're not all the great American novel -- not that I would read the great American novel on a bet -- but at every turn, you will get a little snippet which is interesting, surprising, or different. Always different, in fact. Perhaps related to stories you've heard; perhaps not. It's a cozy experience, cozy is the word I'm looking for. Every time I jump into ...Tastes Like Wine, I have faith that the writers will catch me.

What it is not: pretty. The hand-drawn character art is great, but you spend a lot more time walking the Earth -- and the Earth is low-poly and ugly. It doesn't fit the style. It's not an abstraction or a map; it's a computer model. I know the game isn't about the visuals, but it has some and they maybe need a rethink.

What it is also not: particularly goal-oriented. I see stories evolve, I see characters advance through "chapters" as I feed them stories, but it's a low-agency system. I can't chase a particular thread. (The characters are supposed to clue you in about where they're heading, but this is less useful than just casting around for campfires.) I have to wander around until the next thread, or some thread, turns up. Also, I'm surprisingly bad at remembering which stories are "wild", "funny", "hopeful", etc. So on that level, too, I'm acting randomly: I'm handing over stories and just hoping that they match the requirements.

You'll recall that I had the same complaint about the Reigns games -- low-agency and a lot of random shuffle. The difference is, the Reigns storylets get repetitive, whereas the stories in ...Tastes Like Wine are always fresh. The stories make it worthwhile.

(Maybe the stories should be categorized in more dimensions? Scary/funny/exciting versus supernatural/inexplicable/realistic... Or maybe a story can be recognized as 80% scary and 20% funny. Some of them are. I dunno, I just want a more fine-grained model than the one I've got.)

So I enjoy the experience, but I lack a purposive sense of game advancement, so I made my own goals. I decided to walk from New York to San Francisco. That's an American sort of road trip, right? So I did that, but when I arrived, I hadn't made much progress on any scale that the game offers. So I walked back, and then down to New Orleans, and got more stories, but I still didn't feel like I'd accomplished anything.

It's not a game about accomplishment, then. "Success", or even the completion of one character's storyline, is not really within view. This is surprisingly outside my wheelhouse! I really prefer narrative games with a finite span and an ending. ...Tastes Like Wine is like (you're going to hate this description) it's like a giant RPG which is all side quest. Infinite side quest.

Once I understood that, I became at peace with the pacing and just wandered around for more stories. And then I completed some storylines, to my surprise, after all.

You know, I really want ...Tastes Like Wine to be a mobile game, not a sit-at-my-computer game. I want to pull it out on the subway, hop a few cities, pick up a few stories. I want to trudge towards campfires while lying in bed late at night. Cozy, like I said.