The IGF finalists display a wide range of styles, themes, and kinds of interactivity. I say "wide", I mean "yowza".

But I can pick out groups, if not categories, so this post will cover games about real people's lives. Some of these are autobiographical; some are fictionalized stories about the authors' lives; some are fictions which are meant to illuminate real-life situations.

Yes, all fiction is meant to illuminate real-life situations, but I mean directly. Shush.

In this post:

  • Cosmic Top Secret
  • Lost Memories Dot Net
  • Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story
  • Bury Me, My Love
  • Attentat 1942

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. The comments appear in the order that I played them.)

Cosmic Top Secret

This is an exuberant mess. It's family reminiscence in a Swedish family where Dad did... stuff... during the Cold War. You run around picking up clues about what it was. The story is from real life, or so I assume. The recordings are realistically terrible family interviews, at least. You talk to Mom, Dad, and other folks of their now-elderly generation.

The design is so over-the-top that I cannot help loving it. The world is collage cutouts from photographs -- not just cutouts, but modelled as cardboard sheets with corrugated edges -- and you're a cutout too -- so you have to move by rolling around as a crumpled-up ball. When you get upset, your cardboard limbs fall off. It's all like that. You chase around an orienteering course and march with your mother's old Lady's Auxiliary. You collect six different kinds of clues and assemble them on a Rubik's Cube. It's all little puzzles higgledy-piggledy. They're not even great puzzles... but the whole project feels like what I wanted a puzzle hunt videogame to be when I was twelve.

It wouldn't work if it weren't sincere, but it is and it does.

Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way through, the puzzles were annoying enough that I lost interest in pushing through. It's not difficult, just a lot of tedious rolling around and writing down bits of information. And guessing where the puzzles are under-clued. It stops being fun.

This is a shame because the format really is engaging. We assume that documentaries about old people are boring tape-recorded interviews and grainy newsreel footage. CTS's interactive, cartoony, paper-doll portrayals are the opposite; they're immediate and playful. I think the design just went a little too far on the "play" axis.

Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story

A solid followup to A Normal Lost Phone, and along basically the same lines. The topic is emotionally abusive relationships; the game gives us a didactic exploration of one such relationship. "Didactic" isn't an insult. These games are meant to explain a topic through a fictional life, and it's definitely an explanation by way of story, rather than vice versa. Lots of "common signs" and "some people experience this, others that" checklists.

As with the first one, the story is gated through a few "chapters" by means of passwords and locked apps. You have to trawl the offered email and SMS threads to unlock them. These puzzles are somewhat clunky, both mechanically (you might have to take notes to solve them) and mimetically (if you're hiding information from an abuser, the last thing you'd do is base the password on information they know!) But that aside, the story is tidy and nicely paced. The social-media threads give you a nonlinear story-space to explore and assemble in your head, so the game comes off feeling quite interactive even though it's structurally very simple.

This series has done a great job of wrapping up educational experiences in game form. My only concern is that they may have pushed the "lost phone" structure as far as it can go. The format requires a character who is deliberately discarding a chunk of their life, after all. Both games end with the protagonist leaving town. I don't see how the genre would tackle any problem whose solution is "stay home and face it down." But we'll see what the designers do next.

Lost Memories Dot Net

A slice-of-life story about a much younger generation -- middle-school girls making anime fan blogs in 2004. ("Or you can just use Livejournal, it's free!") There is dating drama: your best friend has a crush on the same cute boy that you do. There is on-line chatting. Some high-school jerk tries to get pics out of you and then disappears. People trade GIFs.

This is in much the same line as Cibele, with the same strengths and weaknesses. It's a story about a moment in somebody's life which has no reason to be a story: there's no moral, no melodramatic triumph or even tragic defeat. Everybody's life contains these moments. And yet the writing keeps you reading -- perhaps because it's so undramatic. It's a particular person's life, all untidy bits and interruptions. You can half-see the lives of the protagonist's family, schoolmates, online friends. The writing doesn't grab you; it's just really easy to keep reading, because it feels like a real person.

The down side is that the stakes are lower than in Cibele. It's the "will I ever hold hands" of middle school, rather than the "will I ever get laid" of college. Yes, it's just as wrenchingly urgent to the protagonist... but that much more distant to the adult player.

Like Cibele, it's structurally very simple. Mostly you chat. You can sometimes select which friend to chat with, and you can jump out to browse web sites when their URLs are mentioned, but you can't switch conversations in mid-chat. Between chats you can work on your blog, but that's limited to the theme and artwork. Blog posts appear non-interactively between chapters, and there are only three chapters. So it lacks the background activity of Cibele's faux-MMO, which at least kept your fingers busy while you chatted. The chat window in Lost Memories has a much sit-and-wait-ier pacing.

Ultimately I was happy to sit through the game, and that really is all down to the writing. It gives you the everyday awkwardness of a 14-year-old girl's life without making it sound either shallow or contrived; that's solid work. I just wish these games had an interactive structure to match the story and writing.

Bury Me, My Love

A live-phone game about a Syrian couple trying to get asylum in Europe. Your wife leaves Homs with a cellphone and a handful of euros. You stay home and offer encouragement.

Your progress -- that is, Nour's progress -- is realistically unpredictable; the trip is full of thieves, border crossings, unreliable vehicles, uncaring soldiers, and missed connections. I played through to one losing ending (indefinite detention in a refugee camp in Bulgaria) and one winning ending (a women's center in Eastern Germany, asylum request in process). But there isn't a strategy to it. If there were, everybody would just do that, right?

Live-phone and lost-phone are interestingly adjacent genres. I haven't played Lifeline or any of its ilk; BMML is my first. I like the effect. I switched real-time mode on and off, playing in roughly half-hour sessions, so that I got through the game in three real-time days instead of the scheduled three weeks. But the situations were tense enough that I wanted breaks, and then I got the experience of being pulled back into the game by a notification banner. It's undeniably effective.

However, the game could have taken the interactivity farther. You start off selecting text messages to send -- often single options, occasionally a choice of two or three, but with a consistent select-and-send UI. However, after a couple of game-days it discards the "fake" choices; it just shows you noninteractive streams of messages until it's time for a branch. (Or, occasionally, a selfie.) This is more distancing than the designers meant it to be, I think.

The missed opportunity is that you (the protagonist) frequently do research for Nour's trip. You look up maps, search wikis, check Facebook for travel hints. But this is entirely passive. You-the-player don't get to do these things, you just read that you've done them. Even a pro-forma interaction for "find info online, send it" would add a lot to the sense of agency.

As I said, the writing is good enough to convey tension and then relief as Nour got through one scrape or another. I wouldn't call it great writing, however. It felt... soft-pedaled. There's this real-world social catastrophe grinding away at entire populations, and this game has tackled the job of conveying it to ignorant Americans. Admirable goal, but the result feels like a winnable game, not a crisis. Also, it reads like a conversation between two almost-Americans who happen to say "by Allah's grace" occasionally. Too-familiar, as opposed to too-othered. I realize this is a translation choice and there's no right answer. I'm still frowning.

(I don't recall a single mention of prayer, either personal or communal, in my run-throughs. Surely that's a gaping hole?)

Solid, certainly educational (for this ignorant American), but it didn't wound me.

Attentat 1942

Life in Nazi-occupied Prague, presented as an investigation: why was my (your, the author's) grandfather arrested by the Gestapo? You interview the grandmother, then neighbors, about the arrest and the war years around it. Interviews with the real-life survivors alternate with motion comics and interactive scenes -- hiding evidence, writing an article for a collaborationist newspaper, cleaning up after a raid, and so on.

The game assembles an encyclopedia of period detail as you proceed. Uncovering key facts in an interview unlocks further parts of the game. However, there's an annoying gamification to it all. If you screw up an interview, by asking a stupid question or offending the interviewee, you're kicked out and have to start over. But starting over costs "coins", which can only be gained by completing the interactive scenes in a historically-aware manner. It is possible to run out of coins (although I didn't). I suppose the game just ends in that case, which seems non-ideal.

The portrayal of the Nazi Protectorate is plenty detailed, but somehow a bit distant. The video interviews are staged, for example, and don't feel very compelling even though they are real people's real-life recollections.

The obvious comparison is to Cosmic Top Secret, which also uses the model of interviewing elderly relatives about the War. CTS also had annoyingly game-y ways to fail (clunky puzzles), but it boasted a ring of authenticity that A1942 somehow misses.

Nonetheless, A1942 is a good picture of the fear and moral fog of a police state. We can hardly argue that the subject is dated.