2020 IGF nominees: adventure plus

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Tagged: reviews, heaven's vault, over the alps, observation, sunless skies, igf, jenny leclue, afterparty, mutazione

We come to the last post. Maybe it should have been the first post. These are the games that are closest in shape to the classic adventure game... at first glance. But each one of these games climbs out of that shape and strikes out for the horizon. We'll see explorations of dialogue structure, explorations of narrative variation, fourth-wall games, interactivity tricks, topics far beyond the golden-age puzzle-hunt.

I'll confess that most of my favorite games of the IGF fall into this group. Then again, I've already said that the groups are a bit arbitrary.

  • Observation
  • Sunless Skies
  • Jenny LeClue - Detectivú
  • Afterparty
  • Mutazione
  • Over the Alps
  • Heaven's Vault

By the way, as I wrap up this review series, remember that I didn't play everything. I've commented on 29 games this week (!) but there are still scads of narrative nominees that I'm interested in trying. Night Call, Tales from Off-Peak City, Falcon Age, Guildlings, ... I could keep flipping through the list. And I will. Except more games keep coming out...

(Note once again: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. I bought Sunless Skies, Heaven's Vault, and Observation. I played Over the Alps in my free trial month of Apple Arcade.)


I wrote this up back in June; you can read my detailed comments from that post.

The summary is that Observation is a fairly on-rails first-person adventure game with a hacking twist. You are the AI of a space station in the middle of a disaster. The surviving astronaut is fixing things, but needs your help. Lots of digital interfaces and camera views. And journals, obviously.

"On rails" sounds like a criticism, but really it fits the game nicely. You're not in charge, after all. You're the sidekick! The human gives you jobs; you do them. The story happens around you, and you are the agent of change, but you're not the protagonist.

It's fun, and the plot takes you on an entertaining arc of space weirdness. I liked it.

Sunless Skies

Enormous sprawling followup to Sunless Sea. I put a lot of hours into this and had a great time. The original game (and Echo Bazaar / Fallen London before it) let you bathe in endless tropey vignettes, a delightfully textured mashup of louche Victoriana and Lovecraftian goo. Sunless Skies goes back and reconstructs the tropes into questions: what is the horror of the Victorian worldview? What is the counter-narrative? How do we let the player navigate the height of the colonial era?

To be sure, it's still a big pile of vignettes with no defining narrative arc. It's got lots of narrative arcs: little tasks, medium-sized background goals, big chewy quests that you can adopt as your run-through aspiration. The game will keep you busy for as long as you care to chase them.

What's new, what the earlier games didn't have, is narrative theme. As I said, the setting raises questions, and the story arcs let you approach those questions. You can support the Queen or undermine Her reign; you can work for or against the Empire. But you will understand that Queen and Empire are points of view, insistent and pervasive, but not universal. The Khanate and the Dead are outside; revolution and the colonized are within. Within each of these frames, smaller tensions: corporation and rebellion, gentry and servant. To a degree, you can shift each of these balances. Not far enough to destroy the entire system. The world as a whole is... obdurate? That may be the point, or it may just be the nature of this kind of storylet game.

I played for a couple of weeks, finished a bunch of major area quests, achieved my aspiration (Wealth), and put the game down. I'm sure there's lots of stuff I haven't seen, but I don't feel a need to come back to it.

(Note that I played the original release, post-early-access but before any of the content expansions.)

Jenny LeClue - Detectivú

Rhymes with "Nancy Drew" but with a cartoony/comedy style. The design is quite sharp. The search-a-scene mechanics are simple but have a couple of different interactions, so you have to pay attention. And then you get a "connect the pieces of evidence" UI for deduction. Nothing that hasn't been done before, but it's well thought out. The mechanics are used consistently across several types of scenes (examining a person, reading a letter, walking around a room, etc) so you feel like you're learning and applying detective skills.

The story is framed as a mystery author writing the protagonist's story, which, okay, it's more clever than it is deep, but the game gets some mileage out of it.

The one obvious flaw is the pacing: it's pretty draggy. Exploring and dialogue both just take a lot of clicks to get through. I got into the rhythm and it didn't bother me much, but I felt like I spent three or four evenings on a two-evening game. And then it winds up with a cliffhanger and a "to be continued". I'm afraid I reacted with a wince rather than a sense of anticipation.

Pacing aside, the game is fun and very playable. But I felt like it never really knew what it wanted to be. It wavers between goofy and dark. There's a murder, sure. There's a mad-science tilt to the story (foreshadowed from the start, that's not a spoiler). It's not purely a kids' story, but it doesn't do that much with the adult characters. Nor do you really engage with the frame, the mystery-author-writing level.

I felt like it wanted to be compared with Night in the Woods without doing the work to get there. The protagonist is mouthy and fun, but the "flawed hero" feels pretty pro-forma -- her relationship problems are kind of pasted on. The material is there (her mom, her best frenemy, her missing dad) but it doesn't have a lot of weight compared to the mystery hijinks. So it's a goofy mystery game, but with all these emotional overtones that don't pay out.

Mind you, this may come together better in the sequel-completion.

Anyway, I've written a lot of complaints, but the upshot is "fun and very playable". It's funny, there's plenty to do, you solve crimes.

(Also, I liked the lock-picking UI.)


It is difficult to talk about Afterparty without comparing it point-by-point with Oxenfree, the previous game from this studio. This is unfair; I think the games have different goals even if they share a lot of techniques.

So. You are two odd-coupled college grads in Hell. Lola is cynical, defensive, and awkward; Milo is a sad sack and double-awkward. Hell, turns out, is a party zone. And also a zone of eternal punishment, but the game takes the Good Place tack of not really showing that part. Some damned souls dangle from lampposts here and there, but it's more of a day job than anything else. Demons dish it out, sinners take it, and when they're off shift they head for the bars together and get smashed. Which is mostly what you do in this game.

This is an old-school adventure game, really, minus the puzzles. It's got the iterated fetch-quest structure, except that at any given time, you're not hunting objects in a landscape of environmental obstacles. You're looking for people (or demons) and talking to them. Okay, there are some drinking and dancing mini-games in there too, just for variety. But mostly it's dialogue.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue is great -- endlessly snarky, witty, sharp, and cheerfully willing to use the fourth wall for a footrest. All the voice acting is spot on, and there is lots of it. I said you are a pair of characters. You steer Lola or Milo around and the other follows. Who is "in front" switches fluidly, and you barely notice, because they are in each other's pockets regardless. It's Oxenfree's walk-and-talk (this is the comparison I cannot avoid) as characterization à deux.

Not just Milo and Lola, of course. Hell is full of people (and demons) standing around, strolling, waiting in line, getting on with their (after-) lives. Quite a few of these conversations are audible as you pass by. Might be relevant to your current quest; might not be. Plus all the folks you approach directly; plus the bartenders you order drinks from. On top of that, social media.

The difference between the classical adventure game and the modern type is the breadth of the narrative space. I've only played through Afterparty once, so I don't have much sense of how much variation it supports. (As I wrote about Heaven's Vault: after the first run-through, you've seen the covers; now you're ready to open the book.) It's clearly a lot, though. There are obvious choices in the mid-game where you pursue some goals while ignoring others. There's an obvious climactic scene with significant end-game choices. And there's lots of little callbacks and reiterations of your moment-to-moment decisions, to reassure you that the game is paying attention.

(This must add up to a stunning amount of recorded dialogue. I'd be surprised if I've heard a third of it in one run-through.)

Where the game falls down somewhat is momentum. In a sense, a comedy about Hell is inevitably a low-stakes game. The worst thing that can possibly happen already has! And it's not that bad! Oxenfree's creepy cosmic horror/ghost story was nail-bitingly compelling (this is the other necessary comparison), but all Afterparty offers you is the dangling opportunity to drink Satan under the table. And maybe escape Hell, but come on, how likely does that sound?

The basic structure of chasing demons from bar to bar is sound, but the actual walking is kind of tedious. It's a perfect backdrop to the running dialogue, but when you finish that and need to hike to the next plot point, things slow way down. Worse, you may not even know where the next plot point is. Traditional adventure games reward you for peering in every corner (a paperclip! a shard of glass! surely these will come in handy!) Afterparty doesn't have those puzzles, so you sometimes have to explore for no better reason than "someone on this island must know the answer to my question".

I also have some quibbles about the way the game communicates the stakes of your choices. But that's going to have to be a separate essay; this has already gotten quite long enough.

My complaints are minor, because the writing really is that hot and I was perfectly willing to chase it all night. The story turns serious at the right point; I think it lands itself well. (There are a couple of major endings with many variations, and yes, they all fit the story.) The voice actors are terrific and the incidental music is pretty great too. (I see you, dance-club remix of O Fortuna!) It may not stick in my head the way Oxenfree did, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride.


This game is a hug and a half!

You are a teenager off to visit her grandfather on a remote island. The after-effects of a long-ago meteor impact have affected the inhabitants: there are troll-people, cat-people, mushroom-people... But this is not a survival game or a zombie game. It's all about small-town gossip and gardening. I decided I was in love when I got to the gardening and there was a "transplant" button.

The focus is resolutely personal. Okay, there's an underlying thread about the ecological balance of the island which you wind up fixing. But the body of the game is entirely about the people (of whatever body type) in this little village. Their stories filter through as you get to know them over the course of a week. They have history and tragedies and loves and regrets and kindnesses and some of them play smashy guitar music. Everybody's voice is unmistakeable. The protagonist filters through as well. Your dialogue choices are frequently "make a joke" or "be serious" -- this is now my favorite example of light-touch characterization via dialogue mechanics. And of course you react to everybody, and interact with everybody, which has its own weight. (Don't forget to read your journal; it's not just a hint mechanism.)

The art is stylized but sneakily dense. There are little touches of animation everywhere, and little visual details as well. (My favorite was a smashy guitar lost under the floorboards of the town pub.) It's a startlingly beautiful game once you start to pay attention.

Like Afterparty, this has the form of an adventure game without the puzzles. Mostly you go around talking to people, following up narrative threads -- or not, as you like. These are interspersed with explicit goals, which pace out the story. Various people want various plants cultured, and grandpa is teaching you some unusual gardening skills.

Unfortunately, while the gardening is central to the story, it doesn't have much weight in the game. The island is full of plants; if you succumb to your adventurer-nature and pillage every seed in sight, you'll find the garden mechanics pretty trivial. I wish they had required a little more involvement -- either depth of play or regular attention. (Once you've grown your Ti berry or whatever, you can ignore that garden thereafter. Going back has no further value. That's rather a thematic hole, isn't it?)

Nonetheless, the game holds up perfectly well as a small-town character-focused narrative. Nobody's trying to kill you, nobody's a horrible person, and the world isn't ending. Or it has ended, a long time ago -- the seas rose, a meteor fell, and the gas stations have been overrun by jungle -- but people made it and everything is basically okay.

Appreciate that. We need more of it.

Over the Alps

It's 1939 and you're a good old-fashioned British spy. Menacing Germans, hapless Italians, guns, chases, blueprints, and twelve kinds of transport because that's what Jon Ingold is into. (Does Heaven's Vault have a hot-air balloon? It must have one somewhere.)

It's nice (and instructive!) to see a Inkle-style game done as a short story, rather than an overstuffed multidirectional epic. The basic structure of locations separated by travel is familiar, but the sequence of locations is mostly fixed (with some jumping and skipping) and you get a choice of just one or two routes at a time. I don't think you can fail, but if you screw up too badly, your superiors may have to bail you out, and then you look like a chump.

There's a simple economy of diversions (throwing the people on your trail off your scent) and footprints (you leave a trail and they catch up). Slow routes mean more time for chance (either of the above), whereas fast routes risk bad outcomes. And, of course, you have a reputation which shifts -- along with the opinion of your fellow travellers and nemeses -- as you interact with them.

I'm explaining this stuff because the game doesn't. It tries to smoothly and wordlessly introduce all its concepts on the fly. I'm afraid this didn't really work for me. I was halfway through before I had any idea what the footprint and diversion symbols meant, or how they applied to the travel reports that kept appearing (and disappearing before I could quite put together what they said). The location screens have a confusing combination of "tap a building to investigate it" (active buildings are subtly marked, except when they're unmarked) and "tap the compass icon to travel". And I really wish the map would highlight meaningful route choices as choices.

UI complaints aside, the game is short, charming, well-written, and invites at least a couple of replays to scope out its range. It probably doesn't need more than that. I hate to call it unambitious. Its biggest problem is that if you like Over the Alps, you probably can't stop talking about Heaven's Vault.

Heaven's Vault

I wrote up Heaven's Vault back in May.

You want a summary? An incredibly ambitious exercise in player agency. The game tracks everything you do, large decisions and small, and synthesizes them into a seamless narrative. You will always feel like you followed the plot, discovered the secrets, and figured out the hidden truth. Except there's no single plot or hidden truth. I've played through it twice and I'm pretty sure I've found at most a third of the hidden secrets.

Play it. No, not everybody loved it the way I did. The protagonist is opinionated and easy to get annoyed at. The pacing is unhurried and, judging by comments I've read, easy to get annoyed at. But even if you don't love it, you need to experience it as an example of broad-form adaptive storylet narrative.