A few recent narrative and adventure games

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tagged: reviews, lisssn, brianna lei, what isn't saved will be lost, interactive fiction, rhem, butterfly soup, knut muller, if, cat manning

What Isn't Saved (will be lost)

The most important lesson of this game is never put punctuation in your game titles. It leads to confusing tweets.

What Isn't Saved (will be lost) is LIVE!

What if you could resurrect the dead--by rebuilding their memories? Zoe, a neuroscientist, is trying to do just that after her girlfriend Sara's death. But her tech isn't perfect, & difficult choices must be made.


Title snark aside: WIS(wbl) is a short SF Twine piece about memory and self-definition. It's short enough that I hesitate to talk about it in any detail. But as the blurb above implies, the gameplay is reviewing and interacting with memory fragments.

You have only a few possible interactions. However, the game forces you to balance the consequences in the story (what will I do with each memory?) with the gameplay consequences (memories unlock other memories). And your actions are limited; you can neither see every option nor save every memory in a single play-through; indeed, your attempt to do either cuts against the other. This provides a nice tension and gives you reason to play through several times. It's still a short experience even with that, but it's worth doing it and seeing the range of endings.

(Interest: the author is a friend and I support her Patreon.)


Lisssn (three S's) is a new game from Knut Müller, the creator of the Rhem series. He has collaborated with music professor Robert Wolff to create a music-education adventure game.

Sadly, the combination doesn't serve either element as it deserves. I feel like both designers were holding back. Probably they thought that really difficult music puzzles would turn off adventure gamers, and really intense adventure puzzles would frustrate people interested in the music theory.

The problem is that the Rhem series is all about intense adventure puzzles; that's what Müller has going for him. You play a Rhem game by obsessively looking at everything, from every angle, and noting down everything you see. It's a uniform puzzle space: everything is a clue, and there's a clue everywhere you could possibly look. Lisssn has some of this dense clueing, but it also has long empty corridors and connections that lead nowhere. You can't skimp on the obsessive peering around, but it's not consistently rewarded either.

Similarly, the music theory is simplified almost to the point of nonexistence. You have to listen to and repeat some note sequences, which only ever span two or three pitches -- low/high or low/medium/high. And there are some rhythm sequences, which only cover short/long beats. I'm not pining for the Myst organ puzzle -- we all agree that was annoying! But when the game is about sounds, you expect a little more depth. Not difficulty, but depth.

They throw in a bit of music history and instrument recognition as well. (Entirely within the Baroque period; don't expect electric guitars or synths.) The history puzzles are the most inexplicable: you need the birth and death dates of four Baroque composers. You are supposed to search the game obsessively for these dates -- looking at tombstones, solving riddles. At one point you have to solve a puzzle to get an item to reveal a riddle which gives you partial information about Henry Purcell's lifespan.

Or you could spend fifteen seconds Googling it: 1659-1695. You can't call that a spoiler, it's like knowing Morse code. This is puzzle design in these modern times (let's say, the past 15 years); you assume that common information is a freebie. I am honestly befuddled how Lisssn missed that.

Lisssn scratched my puzzle itch, but clumsily. I will continue waiting for Rhem 5.

(I will not complain about the graphical style. If pixels can be retro-chic for years on end, surely low-poly Perlin-noise rock textures can be too. But it may not be your thing.)

(There's another whole post in me about how free-travel 3D games have out-competed fixed-node fixed-angle games like Rhem and the original Myst. Because looking around and seeing stuff in your peripheral vision is fun, whereas clanking 90-degree turns are not. But I've already gone on way too long.)

Butterfly Soup

I enjoyed this but did not fall in love with it. It is on the less-interactive end of the visual-novel spectrum; you spend most of your time clicking through dialogue, and when you do hit a choice point, it is often of a lawnmowery nature. (That is, you have N topics to mention or M places on the screen to search, and you get to run through them all. The only question is what order.)

I don't object to this sort of design, but it doesn't grab me like the more-interactive VNs I've tried. For example, Ladykiller is continually hitting you with story-significant choices and explicit plot branch options. Dream Daddy has more click-through dialogue chains, but still puts the "who do you want to date" question front and center. In contrast, after one run-through of Butterfly Soup, I don't even know whether it's possible to kiss more girls than the ending I reached.

(Note added later: pretty sure not.)

The strong point is the characters, who are wonderfully over-the-top specimens of teenage humanity without ever becoming cartoony or implausible. I can't say how well the game portrays the Asian lesbian high-school experience (I barely understand the straight white guy high-school experience) but it's all convincing, sympathetic, and frequently funny.

The game's worst problem is that "gang of fucked-up kids figuring themselves out" puts it right up against Night in the Woods, which just isn't a fair comparison. Butterfly Soup isn't trying to convey an entire town. Grownups appear rarely, and are faceless caricatures when they do. The focus is entirely on the four protagonists plus a couple of older classmates. That's fine; it's what the game is trying to do.

Really, the better comparison is Lost Memories Dot Net. In that frame, I'll happily say that Butterfly Soup has more zip and narrative tension -- you want these kids to catch hold of their natures and start smoochin'. Without losing the zany energy that's kept them squabbling and yelling at each other through the whole game. And they do that.