2019 IGF nominees: something notable

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Tagged: reviews, watch me jump, the hex, narrative, levedad, a case of distrust, igf

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.)

A Case of Distrust

I played this several months ago. It didn't wind up on the IGF finalists list, but it was an IGF entry and it's worth a note.

It's a classic hardboiled detective schtick, nicely assembled and with a nice period setting. The writing is pretty solid; the characters, well, a lot of them are detective-schtick puzzle pieces, but the central ones hold up.

The core mechanic is confronting the right character with the right clue -- or the right two clues, put together -- to get them to confide or confess or whatever the next bit is. This probably works well for people who are good at mysteries. I am bad at mysteries, and I spent a lot of time guessing or lawnmowering to get myself unstuck. Finding the right combination by brute force does not make you feel smart; it makes you feel like you turned the page and the detective figured it out for you. But that's my usual experience of detective novels, so I can't mark off for it.

I could quibble that the narration should provide more separation between the protagonist's viewpoint (in character) and the player's viewpoint (game-oriented). You're aiming to check off "Method", "Motive", and "Opportunity", which makes sense -- but it feels weird for the protagonist to talk that way. Same with the tutorial, which is put directly in the protagonist's mouth. But this is a stylistic choice; again, no points off.

The visual style is awfully charming and evocative. My biggest complaint about the UI is that lawnmowering is slow and awkward. And yes, it feels petty to say that, but if I'm stuck then that's exactly what I'm doing, right?

Compact but satisfactory.

The Hex

In a lonely bar, six washed-up videogame protagonists gather to catch up over beers. But, drum roll, one of them is a murderer! And, another drum roll, there will be flashbacks to fill in their backstories!

This reads like high concept, but it's really a send-up, plain and simple. It's a riff on classic game genres, and then it's a riff on all those game-devs-bleed-on-the-keyboard games we played in 2015. (The Beginner's Guide, Magic Circle, Dr. Langeskov.) Plus a few stabs at recent idols like Undertale, Getting Over It, battles royale, and, okay, pretty much else that's happened in videogame history. If nothing else, it's energetic.

The characters are sketched just enough to sell the gag of "videogame characters with real lives and job angst", but they're still cartoons. You don't play it for the character writing. As for the comedy, I'd say it maintains a running smirk with a few laugh-out-loud moments.

So why play it? For the zaniness of the genre collisions as the game world(s) fall into chaos. (Not a spoiler, you knew it was going there.) The game mechanics crash together (and into the fourth wall) in genuinely clever ways. There's a lot of solid puzzle mechanics in there. Some of it is mugging with a self-lanterned "You like my new puzzle mechanic? Eh? Eh?", but you know what, I did like it.

It's an adventure game which is plausibly funny (though not in any deep way) and deeply enthusiastic about remixing its assumptions and surprising you. Not a bad combination.

Watch Me Jump

Writers often ask how to turn a static work (short story, play, film script) into an interactive work. My usual advice is: don't. If the story wasn't designed around a set of action affordances, you wind up with a choppy rhythm of long cut-scenes and shallow choices.

Watch Me Jump is a nice counterexample. I wouldn't say it disproves the rule. Rather, it deploys sharp, intense writing and a tight scope to such good effect that the minimal interactivity doesn't feel like a flaw. It helps that it's essentially all dialogue -- you can walk around in a couple of places, but this is just a variation on "I think I'll go to the {bar/gym} now." We're used to dialogue-based games having this simple choice model, and while I'm all for improving the state of the art, the old classics work if the writing holds up.

The writing does hold up. The story was originally a short theatrical script. You can absolutely imagine the lines banging back and forth between actors, up in each other's faces on stage. It's good enough that it works even in the game's low-res MSPaint-y art style and without any voice acting.

At least, it does once it gets going. The beginning of the game is the weakest point. It opens with a quiet moment in the hotel bar; none of the stakes are yet apparent. An actor on stage can sell this, but the low-fi game presentation just comes off as a boilerplate dialogue choice. You wanna flirt or be forward? You have to play a few more minutes before the hooks come out.

This isn't the sort of play that I'd typically go see -- a contemporary drama about a women's basketball star who's trying to cope with her life flying both over the moon and into the trash at the same time. But here I am playing it, and I'm glad I did.


A photographer on a rooftop. You have eighteen frames on your film roll. Take some photos.

This was really clever! After you take a couple of pictures, the rooftop environment shifts, and a bit of background storytelling begins to spill out. It's not obtrusive or overplayed; just enough to bring the experience to life. The world around you evolves, your character gains a bit of detail. The camera interface expands too -- again, just enough, and then you can experiment with that.

It's a snack-sized experience, but it does a brilliant job of expanding a tiny idea in unexpected ways. It put a smile on my face.