2021 IGF nominees: tiny adventures

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Comments: 2   (latest 1 day later)

Tagged: reviews, in other waters, when the past was around, rusty lake, the white door, igf, holovista, the flower collectors, mirages of winter

A bit of a mix here. These aren't classic adventure games, but they're not the abstracted explorations that I call "story devices" either. I'd say the common strain is the old Flash adventure genre -- the weird little narrative worlds like Submachine. Of course there are plenty of other influences too. That's just the fuzzy center that I gathered this group around.

  • The Flower Collectors
  • HoloVista
  • The White Door
  • When the Past Was Around
  • Mirages of Winter
  • In Other Waters

(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Mirages of Winter. I bought the others myself -- mostly last fall.)

The Flower Collectors

Barcelona, post-Franco. You're a retired cop (invalided out, in a wheelchair) who putters around his balcony with binoculars, keeping tabs on the neighborhood. You spot a dead body! Then things get political.

Sweet! This is nicely focused on a moment in Spanish history; it does a great job of carrying that across to (callow American) me. The policia, the church, the dissidents, the nightclub, the nosy old lady across the street -- it's fiction but they're all clearly real elements of their time.

My only complaint is that some of the gameplay is real-time "spot all the clues within two minutes" scenes. You can run out of time and fail -- or the game strongly implies that you can -- and that threw me right out of it. Every time of these scenes came up, I paused the game and pulled up a walkthrough. Because I cared about the story and wanted to succeed! It's a small design misfire, is all. (Peeking at the walkthrough didn't spoil the larger story; it was just a matter of finding those clues or triggers or whatever before the clock ran out.)

It's a minor complaint, all things considered. The bulk of the game is dialogue and leisurely investigation with a bunch of vivid locals and out-of-towners. That's all great.


A hidden-object game in a trippy, hypercolor/vaporwave environment. You're a junior architect on her first assignment, evaluating an over-the-top modern house... except that bits of your life keep leaking in.

The photography narrative is have a moment, obviously. HoloVista isn't as interactive as NUTS or as visceral as Umurangi Generation. It sticks pretty tightly to the hidden-object structure, which gives it a more distanced tone. It really is mostly about the visuals. But the story is enlivened by your gang of girlfriends on social media; they're nicely drawn and fun to (remotely) hang out with.

Unfortunately, the last chapter of the game crashed out on my (middle-of-the-line) iPad, so I never reached the end. It's probably a fixed bug at this point, but I never got back to it. Ah well. Someday.

The White Door

Oh, Rusty Lake. I've been playing these room-escape morsels since the Flash era. I'm always happy to play a new one. The cute/creepy vibe amuses me. They're enjoyably tactile and the puzzles stay fresh with each iteration.

Then one pops up in the IGF list and I hesitate. (See Rusty Lake: Roots in 2017.) But why? Don't these games belong on the field? They're small, sure, but I recommend plenty of small narrative games.

If my self-analysis is honest, it's because I feel like they've settled into a formula. Each game is a fresh take -- and The White Door is a side-project to the main series. But I know basically what I'm going to get from Rusty Lake. And my IGF mindset is exactly the opposite: I'm looking for games that do something new.

Well, I'll have to keep an eye on that in the future. In the meantime, have an enjoyable creepy little puzzle game.

When the Past Was Around

Cute little puzzle game about memory and animal-headed people. Makes it sound like Rusty Lake, doesn't it? No, no. Completely different tone. It's sweet and nostalgic and doesn't have any severed body parts at all.

I enjoyed this, but it's been a while and I can't say I remember it well. The story is slice-of-life romance done dream-style; the puzzles are the usual sort of thing. Wordless narratives have to rely entirely on art and symbolism; the art here is nice but that's all. Nonetheless, a perfectly satisfactory diversion.

Mirages of Winter

One of these "journey through a painting" games -- basically walking-simulator-ish with light puzzles. It's all Chinese watercolor with lots of Taoist quotes.

The gameplay style is basically "click what the author wants you to click next". I kept getting stuck because the clicking wasn't as obvious as it should be. And then it's so gently meditative that I get bored waiting for the animations to finish. So I wasn't all that motivated to play, I'm afraid. I got stuck once too often and put the game aside.

Don't get me wrong, though: the art is extremely lovely. You really are floating through an ink-brush watercolor landscape.

In Other Waters

This was hard to categorize! It's got a lot of the "puzzlebox interface" about it (see Mu Cartographer a few years ago). I could easily have included it in my "story devices" post. But you also wind up exploring a physical space. But it's primarily a text game, if a cross between Nuts and Beyond Blue were a text adventure... you know, call it whatever you want.

You wake up submerged in an alien ocean. You're an exobiologist's... dive-suit? AI? There's much to be revealed over the course of the story. But the focus is on the ocean and its ecosystem. Most of what you do is collect samples for your bio-database. The various life forms have different habits, needs, and behaviors; you learn to affect them and rely on them in order to extend your exploration of the world. Heck, maybe I should have called it a modern metroidvania.

There's a bit of inventory juggling and a bit of dodging currents and other hazards. But mostly you're on a journey of discovery... of the natural world and of signs of earlier travellers. And nearly all of this is textual. The graphical style is very simple -- really just a framework for a map and various (explorable) interactions.

Cozy, peaceful, and -- in your mind's eye -- beautiful.

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