Narrative structure for dogs

Friday, June 25, 2021

Comments: 4   (latest 22 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, chicory, cloudpunk, dogs, city of ghosts, an airport for aliens currently run by dogs

I reviewed Cloudpunk last month, but I only talked about the (awesome) visual design and (awesome) soundtrack. That's because, ahem, I played Cloudpunk back in 2020 when it launched. I had thoughts about the narrative design but I forgot to write them down. Oops.

But now I've finished playing through Cloudpunk: City of Ghosts! That's the full-size DLC -- what we used to call a "sequel". And now I'm all thinking about the narrative structure again. So I'm going to totally cheat and write the Cloudpunk post I should have written. I'll call it my City of Ghosts review, but that's just the cover story.

(Which is to say, this post covers both games.)

(Psst: I'm also going to get to Chicory: A Colorful Tale and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Don't tell anyone. It's a surprise. The surprise is dogs.)

Cloudpunk's great trick is that it's a package-delivery game. All you do is pick up and deliver packages. And refill your gas tank, and buy noodles; but that's between packages. It's a courier's life.

It works because the designers commit. There are no dialogue menus! Dialogue menus are the bedrock of narrative games, right? But when you make a narrative choice in Cloudpunk, you do it by delivering a package. Hand a lost item to its original owner or pass it to a fence? Drop a ticking package in a mail slot or a disposal chute? There's lots of dialogue -- these are fully-voiced games and you're practically always chatting away as you drive. But the dialogue supports and flows from your actions in the game world. It's not an additional action layer pasted on top.

Now, this design has consequences. Narrative choices in Cloudpunk are coarse-grained. That is, every choice is clearly defined as a pair of destinations; every choice is emphasized as a major story branch. It's not a branchy story, mind you -- it's a fork-and-merge setup. (Or, I should say: fork, merge, and remember for later.) My point is, it's not a dense cloud of low-level choices that accumulate. Menu-style dialogue is good at that dense cloud; visual novels and Choice Of games use that form. This is the other end of that scale: discrete delineated choices.

I say the designers commit, but they're not rigid about it. A strict interpretation would be a game where you have exactly one goal at any given time, with either one or two active map pins. Cloudpunk breaks that up with occasional surprises. A timed delivery here; an interrupted delivery there. A chase or two. The second game, in particular, enjoys spinning you into wild goose hunts to give the dialogue time to breathe. (Or, sometimes, rap.) And there are always a couple of long-term side quests in parallel with the plot. These let you break up the pressure of the storyline with a little package-hunting or map-roving, any time you so desire.

(Almost any time. If there's a timer ticking or a hijacker in your cab, you have to deal with that first. But, as I said, those are the exceptions.)

I should say a word for the voice actors, who are clearly all having a blast with their over-the-top bit parts. After all, the gameplay is largely about giving you something to do while the actors natter cheerfully in your ear. It wouldn't work if they weren't genuinely fun to listen to. Okay, the editing is sometimes a bit janky. (Different actors pronounce "Rania" and "HOVA" in so many ways that it becomes a running gag.) But the performances are always affecting, hilarious, or both.

But I was after the notion of committing to your interactivity. Let me follow that into a different game, and a different interactive gimmick.

Chicory: A Colorful Tale is about painting. All you do is paint. Okay, you also jump around on (not-quite-3D) platforms. And there's dialogue menus. So it's not as focused as Cloudpunk, but it's still oriented around a theme. The platforming is a metroidvaniesque chain of skills gained to open up the map; but all those skills are done with the paintbrush. And the dialogue -- well, people ask you to paint a lot.

Indeed, Chicory is about art and artists. How audiences react to artists; the pressure that expectations place on artists; what it feels like to want art, or resent it. Thus painting -- but the theme is deliberately looser. The conversation applies equally to writing, and (inevitably) to game design. The paintbrush is the story, not the theme. Is that sloppy? Thematic consistency is perhaps easier than game-mechanical (action-verb) consistency. But you want your game mechanics to have graspable ramifications in the game world, whereas your themes should ramify in the player's life. Let's say that the paintbrush is the key that unlocks the discussion.

(Cloudpunk's story is package delivery; its theme is the filthy tower of capitalism that teeters above the driver. A popular theme these days -- can't imagine why -- I've already contrasted Eliza and Neo Cab. Cloudpunk doesn't try to haul in game design, though. Not sure whether that's a missed opportunity or not. It's not like the game industry is short of gig workers... but I digress.)

It's not Chicory's paintbrush that's most memorable, anyhow. It's the game's... generosity. The game has a multitude of goals, small and large, but almost none of them feel like demands on your time. You can collect furniture if you want. You can color the landscape if you want. You can hunt packages or kittens or take art lessons or help random strangers with their party plans. If you paint a painting for someone, they're happy with it (and the game goes to some length to comment on your choice of colors and composition). But there's also a lot of "Would you like to paint something else?" "Would you like to help?" "Would you like to paint a new doughnut?" It's just a very agreeable game.

Even the metroidvaniesque map limitations take pains to feel like natural boundaries, not frustrations. You can't swim or climb cliffs; that's just how movement works. But (spoilers) when you can? Suddenly every river or cliff is an opportunity! There are lots; whole stretches of the map open up, and the areas you struggled to reach turn into playgrounds. The constraints are carefully placed, but it feels like a cycle of freedoms gained, not a sequence of chokepoints unlocked.

But I haven't mentioned the most important factor, which is dogs. Surprise!

In Chicory, you're a dog. Not a dog named "Chicory". (Chicory is a hare.) You pick your name. I was "Cherries". I don't know what happens if you pick "Chicory". I bet the game lets you do it and names the hare something else.

In Cloudpunk, you are a human, but your sidekick is an AI dog. An AI that is an artificial dog. I mean, it talks, but it talks like a dog would talk if it could talk without pretending to be a human. (How much talk would a dog would talk...?)

Logically, we must next discuss a game where you are a human, and your partner is a human, and everyone else in the universe is a dog. This game exists! It is called An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs.

Airport Dog Game is by Xalavier Nelson, and playing it is pretty much getting a blast of Xalavier Nelson in the face. The titular airports are full of pedestrian dogs -- "pedogstrians" -- who you can stop and chat with. Each one will say something that will make you grin for one reason or another. If I get started quoting dogs, I'll be here all day and still won't get across the effect of playing Dog Airport Game. Better to play it.

(To be clear, some of the dogs are cats. That's their business.)

Commitment: all you do is chat with dogs and get on airplanes. True, getting on airplanes is a little different in the future where dogs run things. Money is out of fashion; you just pick up a boarding pass or fifty. Then the dog at the gate wants something else. Maybe a ball, maybe a coffee, maybe an umbrella. Go fetch. The airport mall dogs are happy to give you stuff.

So, in a sense, all you do in Alien Dog Airport Game is collect items. Chatting and catching flights is the motivation, not the activity. Your inventory is the core of the game. On top of that, traditional dialogue menus! The game isn't stripped-tight like Cloudpunk.

But this stuff is clearly just pacing for the basic concept of chatting with as many dogs as possible. The plot doesn't depend on your dialogue choices. No deep conversation maps or resource economies. It's just enough mechanism to keep the dogs feeling lively. And there's a story arc which becomes clear as you chat with your girlfriend in various airports, and a bunch of side quests which turn up as you chat with dogs on the way to chatting with your girlfriend. It's very laid back.

Well, sort of laid back. The basic experience of airports (remember airports?) is feeling hurried and harried and tense and bored and convinced that you're going to miss your flight even though you left three hours early and brought four photo IDs. Alien Dog Airport feels like that. The clock is ticking and you can't find your gate. It's not cruel about it; you will not in fact miss your flight (unless you try hard). But it's not cozy.

(Cloudpunk feels cozy. Which is weird, because Cloudpunk's whole point is that the city of Nivalis is corrupt, filthy, and dehumanizing. It's wracked by inequality and exploitation and (android) racism and crime. Trash barrels flame in the alleys. Neighborhoods collapse into the ocean as you watch. But damned if it isn't homey. Wherever you go, people are strolling around, shopping, hustling to sell you an energy drink. You are in no actual danger of being mugged. You can fly anywhere. The HOVA highways are a bright endless tide of cheery antigrav zrrmmm -- no traffic jams, no angry honks. It's a rainy night but the buildings are all aglow. The music makes me young. I want to live there! It's an edge of dissonance that makes the game -- if Nivalis were actually miserable, you wouldn't play.)

(The dissonance is Chicory is that it's a simple cartoon game which is not a simple children's story. I will return to this point.)

(The dissonance in Alien Airport Game is that you happily walk up to total (dog) strangers and start a conversation. Nobody does this in real airports. If you do this, don't tell me because then I'll be scared of you.)

(Except once, in 2017, when we travelled to Kansas City for the eclipse. Waiting for our flight home, everybody in the airport was an eclipse tourist. Everybody! You could turn to anybody at all and say "So, did you get a good view?" and then talk about eclipses until your flight arrived. It was the most sociable airport I've ever experienced in real life. Try it in 2024.)

So why dogs?

For adults, dogs are a way to talk about kids. Or innocence, or honesty, or love, or any of the other things we project onto children. For kids, dogs are a fun way to talk about people -- which is to say, other kids. (Kids figure adults can take care of themselves. I know, it's hard to remember why.)

Or dogs can be a way to talk about actual dogs. But this takes a lot of work. Observation is a fine skill.

Cloudpunk takes the route of innocence. Camus is the eye and voice that needs never compromise. If you have to work with a slimeball, Camus says "I don't like him." If you're trying not to think about your past, Camus says "I miss home." You get entangled in Nivalis -- you have to -- but Camus doesn't. But then, Camus doesn't judge you for your choices either. The dog trusts you. Live up to it.

Dog Airport Currently Alien Game uses dogs as outsiders and observers of humanity. (The "aliens" are us, then.) The dogs have taken up human roles, but they are allowed to get it wrong, in order to understand our mistakes or just to make life more absurd. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of absurd here. "We don't have to sniff each other's butts. We can just walk away." Yeah, I quoted one. I'll stop.

Chicory has a broad (and broadly representative) cast of animal characters. You, the dog, are just another person; you don't stand out in that sense. You're young; that's characterization, not metaphor.

What the game does really well is speak to children, in the clear language of children's stories, while admitting to the deep sea of scary emotions that are everybody's life. Regardless of age. (Wandersong, the author's previous game, takes the same tack.) You can be scared of failure. You can resent people's expectations. You can be depressed and lash out and hide in your room and hurt your friends. Or your friends may do these things to you. Sooner or later they probably will! That's what Chicory tries to get at. And then what?

These three games have their own stories. They are not, at root, dog stories. Dogs are just the gimmick for this blog post. If there's a common theme, it's the importance of the little choices, the choices that don't gate the big plot. The choices that show who you are, you who experience the plot. Paint some trees. Give a construction dog some tools. Hunt down every kind of fast food in the city. Or do something else. Dog don't judge.

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