2019 IGF nominees: my favorites

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tagged: reviews, seers isle, return of the obra dinn, wandersong, narrative, igf, thematic apperception

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.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Last year I described Gorogoa as partaking of the nature of The Fool's Errand and Kit Williams' Maze. I can describe Return of the Obra Dinn in exactly the same terms, weirdly, even though it's an entirely different sort of game. I could also describe it as a cross between Hadean Lands and Her Story, which is funny because Sam Barlow and I were both on the narrative jury.

Obra Dinn is a narrative puzzle game, and it's absolutely committed to that. You investigate a narrative, and that's all you do. The puzzles consist simply of asking what you've discovered. This is a puzzle format that I like to call the "thematic apperception test" (I cheerfully misuse a term from psychology). It's nothing new; detective games have been exploring the idea in one form or another since the 80s. But Obra Dinn is unique, I think, in building this structure on an intensively detailed environment where everything is part of the story.

I keep wanting to use the word "multisensory". Of course it's not; the 3D rendering has a distinctively stylized look, dithered monochrome, from the earliest Mac days. (I mentioned The Fool's Errand, right?) The soundtrack is simple voiceover plus some orchestral stings. But within those bounds, lordy, this sausage uses every part of the pig. The voiceover talent uses accents and non-English lines; these are clues. When you look around a scene, objects are rendered with motion lines; these are clues. People's clothing is a clue. Facial features are clues. Scars. Stance and body language. Where someone sits. Who is playing what game with who. How people are named on the passenger manifest. How people are drawn in the introductory sketches.

This is the puzzle-book comparison: when you look at an illustration in Maze, you know that any detail could bear meaning. I love this. I'm not good at it, particularly, but I love it. And for once, this fountain of detail is in service of the story. Not "puzzles", the abstract game of find-the-pattern; not the win condition; but the story -- what happened to the Obra Dinn and everybody on board.

So I have to say Obra Dinn is my narrative game of the year. I just have to. And I'll get to the caveats in a minute.

It helps, of course, that it's all done so excellently well. The dithery visuals aren't all that clear, but you don't generally need to make out subtle details. Once you know what you're looking for, you can see it. (In particular, you never need to recognize faces. The UI lets you match figures up with the sketch index for free. To my great relief!) The voiceover and foley work is spot on. The soundtrack, simple as it is, is an elegant emphasis to the critical moments of presentation.

And the story is -- I am heroically avoiding spoilers here, but I appreciate the author's deft touch with genre. The story starts out with classic romantic sea tragedy: pistols, knives, and shouts of mutiny. Then, almost immediately... but that would be telling.

The telling is nonlinear, and this is part of its power. (The Her Story comparison, in case that isn't obvious.) The mechanics require that you see the end of the story first, and then jump up and down the timeline towards the beginning. So you are putting the story together in your head as you go. I've seen this trick work poorly (ask me about replaying Myst 4) and well (Memento is easy to name, but come on, we all loved it). In this case, it worked great for me. The sharp focus on detail -- who died, when, and how? -- helped a lot; I always had specifics in mind. The over-arching plot followed naturally.

Yes, there are caveats. I didn't love the visual style. As I said, it didn't get in my way -- much -- but I still felt like I was squinting all the time. It wasn't as bad as Scanner Sombre, whose rainbow dither left me visually exhausted after just a couple of hours. But I still would have preferred ligne clair.

The ideal player of Obra Dinn would deduce every fact from observed details. I am not the ideal player. I observed maybe three-quarters of the details, and guessed the rest. Quite a bit of guessing, over all. (And I peeked at a couple of Internet hints, too.) The mechanics permit guessing, but don't encourage it. You need three correct sets of facts before the game will check them off, and the possible range of facts is large. So blind guessing is a waste of time. If you can narrow down possibilities -- say, to four faces and four possible names -- well, you can lawnmower 24 combinations. I did it... but it was boring and I felt bad about it. But I did it. (Yes, I had missed a set of clues, but searching the ship yet again would have been even more boring.)

The game doesn't end very satisfyingly. The end of the play experience, I mean. (The end of the Obra Dinn's story is appropriate, but that's where you start.) The game wraps itself up tidily, even cleverly -- but there's no sense of high stakes resolved. It's just the last piece of the puzzle.

It's the opposite of fannish writing. I think this bothered me less than some, but it did bug me. Every design choice is to distance the drama that you witness. It's dense drama, it's complex, it's got tons of (doomed) characters. But you aren't rooting for any of them. Nobody's making "favorite Obra Dinn character" polls.

(This might have come down to a moment when you, as the protagonist, step into the center of things. The author chose not to do that. You have a role and a presence, if not a name. But you are, from first to last, merely an observer.)

Look, the game is unquestionably successful. It sucked me in, it convinced me to play through on its own terms (bar a couple of Internet hints). It left me with a vivid story in my mind's eye. It pulled off a trick that I haven't seen done, and it did it all in service of that story. I recommend Obra Dinn hard. I loved playing. But I think that I could have loved the story, itself, and that would have been even better.

Seers Isle

Visual novel time: a boatload of generally Celtic-oid fantasy protagonists crashes into the sacred island of the seers. They must trek into the interior and Pass The Trials, thus qualifying themselves to level up as shamans.

I snark, but the writing is solid enough to carry the premise. It's not brilliant writing, but it's economical and it focuses (correctly) on the characters, their backgrounds, and the relationships between them. The setting never advances beyond "D&D sourcebook", but the characters and their lives all exist within it, which is enough.

The artwork is awfully nice, too -- detailed digital paintings. The game uses the visual-novel convention of showing each character as a close-up fixed illustration as they speak, with expressive variations. But the characters are also shown in-scene; you get plenty of full-scene illustrations as the story progresses. Subtle effects like "Ken Burns" panning and varied placement of dialog on the screen add to the liveliness.

I initially felt that the game was offering me too much text with too few choice-points in between. (Which is my usual problem with visual novels.) However, it grew on me. The text dumps aren't that long, and the choices feel significant. By the end of the first chapter, I had the sense that the story could have gone down several very different paths (literally!) and I'd had the agency to guide it. The game does a good job of keeping this feeling in place through the entire story.

I have now played through the story twice, and it turns out to be more narrowly constructed than I first thought. It's a fixed chain of episodes; your choices determine how each episode resolves, or whose viewpoint you follow through an episode, but not really what happens next. Then you reach the finale with one of several possible characters, depending on your earlier choices. If I read the achievements screen correctly, there are four major character resolutions with two possible endings per.

I'm not complaining about linearity here. This is a familiar sort of a structure for a choice-based game. I bring it up to emphasize that the game does a great job of feeling like you are steering the story. In fact your choices often determine which character you follow, or which pairs of characters you focus on the interaction of. That's significant to you, even if the team is going to be trudging up the same hill next chapter.

The final (initial) twist is your narrative role: an initially formless and passive observer. But your choices have some diegetic weight, as you influence the protagonists one way or another. As the story goes on, they become aware of you, speak with you, sometimes reject you. Eventually your role in the story becomes clear. I liked this setup quite a bit. It's not the full-bore agent-role surprise that some games have offered. (Where your player role is, big twist, part of the story!) Rather, it's a character who is actually part of the story -- in the relationships-with-other-characters sense -- and this is revealed slowly over the course of things.

...I've probably spent too long dissecting this. It's a cozy story about a bunch of cute D&D teenagers on a road trip. Some of them die, mind you, but it's a good read, it has great art, and the narrative structure has some cleverness to it. I came away solidly pleased with it.


This is a cutesy action platformer, with the open goal of being entirely non-violent. The first thing you do is find a sword. The second thing you do is throw the sword away and make friends with a monster by singing at it. This is the game's position statement.

You are a bard. Your core interaction is singing, which uses an eight-note wheel. Obviously this means plenty of "sing along with somebody" (a low-stress rhythm game), but the game goes way past that. Singing evokes bardic magic in various areas; the directional music-wheel might rotate gears or direct the winds.

This is all fine, and indeed it makes a perfectly good action platformer. However, it's not one that I found particularly compelling at first. The storyline is another round of "collect the plot tokens, save the world". The main character is a characterless doll. (The giant blank eyeblobs creep me out, I'm sorry to say.) The game has fun making tiny vivid cartoon characters out of the NPCs -- of whom there are many -- but tiny cartoons is all they are; briefly amusing at best.

This is perhaps overmuch complaining for what's supposed to be a good-natured, kid-friendly platformer. As I said, it's perfectly good at that. But I gave up on it twice. I tried a pre-release several months ago, got to an annoying wind puzzle, and shut it off. In the release version, I got past that, but then I ran into an annoying water-blob puzzle and shut it off.

These are the moments where, if I'm really into a game -- because of the puzzles, the art, the writing style, anything -- I will muster my stick-to-it-ness and repeat the damn jump until I make it. Wandersong didn't quite get there. Except, see...

Say there was another IGF finalist which was ostentatiously crude and family-hostile and all the characters were dicks. (Just imagine. Sssh.) And say I got tired of playing that, and I wanted to play something good-natured and friendly. So I picked Wandersong back up for the third time. And this time I finished it.

(For, indeed, this is what happened.)

Wandersong remains cute and cartoony and easily accessible to the young mind. But it's not vapid. The cute friendly bard is set up against a Hero, capital H, who is also cute and cartoony -- but has a different take on the story. And they disagree. It's a real argument. The story doesn't shy away from that.

The story is aware that when we see this happy singing cartoon bard, we're seeing a public face. He keeps it up, and sometimes that's hard. He can also, eventually, say "I'm scared" and "you hurt my feelings". I don't mean he turns into a noir hero, or even Steven Universe; but he is a character. Kids will get it because there's something there to get.

When the ending comes around, it's big and happy and (sure) melodramatic and (probably) too mechanically involved for its own good. (Reiterating your puzzle mechanics in the endgame is great, but it can kill the momentum.) It's still worth a cheer, because you believe in the characters enough to root for them. Or against them. (That argument isn't quite resolved...)

So, despite my early impressions and two failures, I wind up recommending Wandersong a lot. Writing for children is hard. When I was a kid, I always sided with the sincere-and-subversive ("The Electric Company") over the sincere-and-supportive ("Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"). But I have come to appreciate the latter, and this is a solid example.