2021 IGF nominees: story devices

Monday, May 10, 2021

Tagged: reviews, unmemory, arrog, stilstand, igf, utility for the soul, love a puzzle box

Sometimes I say "interactive storybook"; sometimes I say "story device". Usually textual (except when it's wordless). No model world or explorable map. Focus is on direct interactions with the text, or the story, or an abstract puzzly interface that makes no sense (until it does). What can I say, it's a "know it when I see it" category.

My comments in this post came out pretty mixed; I wasn't entirely into this year's story devices. This doesn't mean I was unhappy to see them, though! This is a relatively fluid sub-genre. There's more scope for exploration of form than there is in, say, parser IF. So it's always fun to see what people are going to do with it.

  • unmemory
  • Utility for the Soul
  • Arrog
  • Stilstand
  • LOVE - A Puzzle Box Filled with Stories

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)


(unmemory was also an IGF entry last year, although I didn't blog about it.)

A story device in the Device 6 sense. I am a sucker for these things, but I had trouble getting into this one. It's an amnesia plot (sigh) that starts with a hardboiled "wake up with a corpse" scene (sigh) and moves on to secret messages, safes, and so on. It's pretty genre-cliche, with a heavy dose of spot-the-cultural-reference. The story revolves around a gang of lady artist/thief/provocateurs but they're rather more scenery than characters.

The interface has a nice range of interactions to discover. The presentation might seem unimaginative -- a vertical scrolling text with gizmos interpolated -- but as you proceed, you find yourself scrolling up and down between devices. This turns a linear text into an explorable space in an understated but really clever way. Later chapters introduce altered visual states that expand the space on new axes.

The game is puzzle-centric, and there are plenty of puzzles, to be sure. I found them a mixed bag -- always clever, sometimes overly obscure -- and I went to walkthroughs fairly often. To be clear: I have no walkthrough shame. If I'm into the story of a puzzle game, I'll hit walkthroughs to see the end; if I'm not into the story, I'll hit walkthroughs so I can move on. In this case I wasn't that into the story, but I enjoyed a lot of the puzzles anyhow.

Utility for the Soul

An interactive... evocation, I guess, of an imaginary art gallery installation. Small line-art animations to get across what the experience would be like.

(I think it's imaginary. Some of the pieces would be hard to get working reliably in real life.)

This is modern art about modern art, which is to say, it's exactly the kind of stuff that I come up with. I love gallery installations like this.

However, the piece itself is slight and it suffers from "do what the author wants to proceed". (I actually got stuck on one room, embarrassingly. There's a skip button.) Not really what I was looking for, in the end. But I'd love to see a lot of little art-gallery pieces like this in the game world. Then everybody would have a favorite.


  • by LEAP Game Studios & Hermanos Magia -- game site

(Arrog was also an IGF entry last year. I am repeating my comments from last year's post.)

A short interactive picturebook about stars, rain, and capybaras. Mostly wordless, mostly monochrome.

This is at its best when it's asking you for little thematic interactions -- click to light a star or blow away a cloud. It bogs down when it throws you into puzzles. These are also thematic, and never difficult, but I felt like I was being kicked out of the story to figure out some puzzle mechanics.

And yes, my world is full of unapologetic puzzle storybook games. I've played Fool's Errand and Gorogoa and everything in between. I've written games like that. I love 'em. But there's a certain texture to the feast-of-puzzles game. You have to set the table. Occasional interactions and an abstract storyline (not obviously about puzzles or mystery-solving or anything) don't set that up.

I don't know, it's a subtle thing. I shouldn't make a big deal of it. The animations are all charming and I'm a fan of capybaras. The story is kind of impenetrable, but that's way better than the big clanging symbolism of too many wordless narrative games. I'll take it.


A short, personal story about being stuck in Copenhagen in the summer. The protagonist mostly lies around sweating. A glumphy-black avatar of... not her depression, exactly, but some cheery defense mechanism made of depression... anyway, it tries to corral her into going to parties and dances and dates and so on. Spoiler: this works out as well as you'd expect.

The hand-drawn animation does a great job of conveying the tone. Everyone is awkward in a Lynda-Barryish you-tried-to-draw-yourself-and-used-way-too-many-teeth way. The gameplay is mostly "do whatever little thing the author wants you to do in this panel", but it's pretty well cued and suits the fruitless mood. I might have wanted a bit better ratio of "click to do something" vs "just click", but it's a short piece so it doesn't wear.

This isn't a flashy game, but it's expressive and solidly at home with what it's trying to do.

LOVE - A Puzzle Box Filled with Stories

The title says this should be all of my favorite things in the world, and indeed it tries. The box is an apartment building; every room contains snapshots of stories which are linked up and down, forwards and backwards through time. You can rotate the floors to align them and connect up more pieces of each (nonverbal) story.

This is a fantastic idea which runs kind of rough in practice. It's hard to tell what's clickable. It's hard to tell what characters are "complete" and eliminated from future interactions. It's hard to tell what a given character needs to advance their story. It's hard to tell why anything happens. The whole thing is just hard; there's basically no better way to proceed than randomly rotating and clicking until something works.

It's not like the game is short on clues. The authors put clues in photos, in the apartment settings, all over the place. You can look at a specific puzzle photo and have a pretty good idea where to focus your random rotate-and-click search. But it still feels like stumbling across solutions, not solving puzzles.

I want to like it. The stories that get exposed pack human warmth and sweetness into their snapshot moments. The fact that each one is portrayed across a span of time puts grief and hurt into context; there is such a thing as healing. But the mechanics don't work, at least not for me.