My next group of games are the ones that interested me, but didn't really work for me. I have to emphasize "for me"; each of these games had enthusiastic defenders in the judging discussion. So I want to point them out. But I will necessarily have more to say about what I disliked than about what I admire! So you might want to read more people's comments than just mine.
- Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except DARQ, which I bought earlier in the year.)
- by Mujo Games + Stuffed Wombat -- game site
A choice-based game where you get exactly three words at a time: a prompt and two choices. Then the response is three words, and then you get another choice. So six-word stanzas, really.
(Really there's just a hair more information than that. The text can be rendered with a tint, or a shadowy flicker to indicate that you're in the dark.)
It's a gimmick, and the fun part is that it works at all. Three words is enough to convey practical choices, characterization choices, restriction (lack of a third choice), or set mood or tone. Extended sequences can convey scenes, like being lost in fog. What it doesn't convey is setting, except in the broadest terms of what you encounter. If you can hitchhike on the road in a cart, this is a place with carts and roads. There's a warlock in a tower somewhere. So that's all fine; it's a narrative, you can imagine details to taste.
The gimmick wasn't enough to hold my interest, though. The game is organized as a sequence of encounters, drawn apparently at random from a pool. Quite a lot of these encounters are "pick the right choice or die", with partial or no warning about what "right" means. So you die a lot. Restarting is instant, and you can jump right back out the door into a new encounter, so it's not frustrating. But there's not a lot to it either. I'm not sure whether you're supposed to memorize all the right choices, or whether the game discards used-up encounters until you reach the goal. I didn't have the patience to get through it, either way.
(The game comes with four independent stories, as you'll find once you get tired of the warlock one and check out the main menu. Not all of them had this die-repeatedly structure. But I still found that my first run-through of each ended in failure, without enough motivation to try again.)
Again, I'm impressed that the model works. It's a good solid piece of work for what it is. But I still walked away feeling like I'd experienced a really well-worked out gimmick.
- by Unfold Games, LLC -- game site
A couple of years back I wrote about Inside: "A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre." And then went on about how the scenery was beautiful and the mechanics were twisty and interesting, but it wasn't actually a narrative game.
Now I have to repeat all that about DARQ, except that "moody monochrome platformer" has shriveled from a genre into a trope at this point. Bobble-headed Selickesque protagonist, creepy manniquins, wordless "narrative", you Go Into The Light at the end. That's a spoiler. Not really a spoiler.
(Inside avoided the Pearly-Gates cliche -- I'll give it that.)
DARQ has good solid puzzle structure. I'm entirely happy with it on that account. It jumps out of the 2D plane with a satisfying thump; you have to navigate some thoroughly twisty environments. (Twisty both in your head and in the game's warped sense of gravity and reality.) You get plenty of puzzle variety. The stealth and chase scenes are not too annoying, even (I think) for the joystick-averse players who showed up for the puzzles.
I just have to shake my head at a visual style which only distinguishes itself from Inside/Limbo by leaping into the arms of Jack Skellington.
(Friends have also pointed out that some of the horror tropes are straight-up "disability is creepy". I took it as just part of the Tim Burton pastiche; Nightmare Before Christmas had the creepy wheelchair, Edward Scissorhands was whatever the heck that was, etc. Regardless, more stuff that could have been better-considered.)
- by Mojiken Studio -- game site
Visual novella (it's really short) about a creepy dystopian future in which /Google/ Mother Search-Engine is sapient and then killed itself. Now society is breaking down, because everyone's last search results were about suicide.
I say "dystopian" but it's also weirdly hopeful? Robots and humans interact on equal terms... almost. Robots have been software-locked against suicide, but this is understood as a violation of their free will, which takes for granted that they have free will... or is that your point of view? (Your identity as a human, robot, or the apparently-dead Mother is pointedly left ambiguous.) At one point a human mentions that his daughter is a robot, with no commentary or surprise. It's the dark SF future with all its tropes undercut or unresolved; I found the conception delightful.
Your role is to cast runes to answer four petitioners' questions. The results affect the news headlines across the several weeks that the story covers. And at the end... I'm not sure. The story resets, without much sense of whether this is a game restart or a diegetic time (prediction?) loop. There's a clear hook for an alternate path out, but I wasn't able to find it. I'm pretty sure the story isn't over but I don't know how to proceed.
Definitely worth a look. At some point I'll look at spoilers and figure out what I missed.
- by Sisi Jiang -- game site
A Twine piece which updates the legend of Mulan to the Opium Wars era.
This is enthusiastic, well-researched (as far as I can tell), and the writing is solid. However, it's not very technically polished. The author has made excellent use of standard Twine techniques (stretch text, cycling text, differentiating these from advancement links) but hasn't tried to push the UI in ways that would suit the work. This leads to some awkward scenes where an abacus, for example, is shoehorned into the existing Twine choice model.
Similarly, at one major branch point, the game asks you to save; but the author doesn't seem to have enough control to force a save. (Which is what the game struture is asking for.) Later it offers the opportunity to jump back and try the other branch, but only if you pushed the save button earlier.
Overall, it feels like it's not fully aware of game design possibilities. A game can have several major branch points and make that the focus of the structure, or it can commit to a single forward path. Having one branch point just confuses the player's expectations. The romance storyline also feels like it's not well-balanced across the possible story paths. (I got into scenes that I don't think were set up by the story I saw.)
I know I'm biased towards my own skill sets. I'm a giant code nerd and I always want to customize a system for my specific needs. I'm good at managing messy game state logic. Not everybody is like this! I don't want to downrate a game which wants to be judged solely on its prose.
So, starting over! Lionkiller is a choice-based narrative which updates the legend of Mulan to the Opium Wars era. You progress through the life of Hua Mulan, queer conscript soldier and flowershop girl. It's choice-of-games style -- no wrong options, although some paths are more queer than others. The sense of place is strong; the author does a great job of conveying an era of history in tight interactive text.
Unfortunately (and getting back to the technical issues), I tripped over a bug and couldn't finish the story. I got stuck in a page with no exit links. So my judgement remains incomplete, but I still think it's a worthwhile and significant piece.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
- by Sean Han Tani & Marina Kittaka -- game site
A nonviolent Zelda game. Well, not much violence. Okay, you squish a lot of slimes but it's thematically nonviolent. The world is full of monsters, but they're beset by psychological problems; you jump inside them to cleanse their humors and enable them to live happy well-adjusted lives.
You talk to everybody, up to and including the rocks. Copious dialogue; copious backstory as you explore the world and the interior life of monsters.
This is entirely sincere, but it also managed to tweak all of my "no thanks" impulses. The world alternates between low-fi 3D graphics (PS1-era) and pixel-art 2D. The 2D boss fights get pretty hard; I had to switch to easy (double-health) mode. The text is slow-rolled. (You can hold down a button to make it display less slowly, but not fast.) The writing is good-hearted but not good per se. I wound up playing for a couple of hours and getting past the first major plot gate, and then put it aside.
So my initial writeup of this game was that it was Undertale for Zelda fans. It clearly had resonance for some people, and a long story arc which hooked people who played through the first several hours. Those folks say that the story develops depth and thematic complexity once you get that far in. That's great, but what did the game have that drew them in that far? I figured that -- like Undertale -- it was the nostalgia factor. Here is a style of game that you grew up with and retain a love for. (Zelda-ish RPGs, in both the 2D and 3D styles.) But the style is used to carry a reconsidered story, commenting on and then moving beyond the original games, as it mashes up and then moves beyond the original UI conventions.
And since I never played old JRPGs (for Undertale) or old Zelda games (for Anodyne), the whole thing is lost on me. Not lost -- I can see that stuff is going on -- but I don't have the motivation to play that much of it. So I never get the full story.
(Contrast Braid, where the puzzle content hooked me enough for me to play through and appreciate its repurposed and inverted Mario tropes. Or, you know, the entire 25-year history of modern parser IF, which built on the Infocom tradition, expanded it beyond recognition, and then cheerfully left it in the rear-view mirror.)
So should you believe my pat theoretical framework? Maybe not. I got some pushback from people who loved Anodyne 2, and said it wasn't a matter of Zelda nostalgia. They outright loved the story and writing from the get-go. So maybe I should just go with "If this is the stuff that you love, you're going to love the hell out of it."