Saturday, January 8, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: intimate and/or personal

Some of these are cozy. Some are the opposite of cozy. All of them tell you straight-up where the authors come from.
Several of these reviews wind up saying "This is really good but I didn't entirely connect with it." Honestly, that's 2021 talking. Connection is hard. We're all walking around with deflectors at maximum.
  • Unpacking
  • No Longer Home
  • TOEM
  • Last Call
  • NORCO
  • Lake
  • An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Lake and Airport Dog on my own before IGF judging started. NORCO is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Unpacking

Open the boxes and put the stuff away... eight times, across a span of a person's life.
This is biography with the lightest possible touch; just stacks of objects. It's very, very deft. Spreading your stuff out into a dorm room is one mood; trying to fit it back into your parents' place is another. What stuff you keep over the years, what stuff you want to put on display or hide away, habits and favorite foods... The triumphs and failures are startlingly specific.
The gameplay is a light puzzle of getting everything to fit on the shelves. At least, it's supposed to be light. I found it draggy at times. Especially when putting away socks. And I stumbled several times over some object that I had no idea what it was or where the game wanted me to put it. (I suppose my aunt gave it to me.)
So the whole experience went on longer than it was really able to support. Yes, it's supposed to be zen and feel like doing your chores. But more the latter than the former. The cleverness of conveying story through objects is impressive, but there's not much to the story beyond that spark of figuring it out. Charming as heck, though. And certainly lots of my friends loved it. I might just be reacting a little more disconnectedly than most.
Bonus points for pixel art which is thoughtful and beautiful instead of just being pixels. You can peer at the book covers and very nearly recognize them, even though they're about ten-by-ten.

No Longer Home

A short expressive game derived from the authors' experience of moving out after university. It's about packing up and going. Naturally this goes right after Unpacking!
Don't go in expecting much game-structure. It uses the format of choice-based dialogue, but I never felt I was making real decisions. In fact, I would often select a dialogue choice by accident while clicking through lines -- and that didn't much affect the experience. This is not a complaint! I'm just saying that the game is the dialogue equivalent of a walking simulator. It's there for the characters to see and say certain things. You take in the mood and then you're done.
The ordinariness of the dialogue is set up against the not-always-ordinary setting. The environments slide from the mundane college flat -- dripping just a bit of florescent decay -- to odd underground psyche-scapes. Which, come to think of it, leak back just a bit into the dialogue. Everything is understated and liminal.
(If you're thinking Kentucky Route Zero, yes, it's an open homage. Complete with world-geometry folding and unfolding like stage-sets. It's also got a semi-interactive prelude, like KR0's interludes. Also parser IF references. If you've been wondering "Who's doing stuff like KR0?" These folks.) (Also Variable State.)
I admire this, I enjoyed it, and I am a whole-hearted fan of transforming psyche-scapes. If I have a complaint, it's that I never quite connected with the characters and their low-key discontent. Which is exactly the low-key unresolvedness that the authors were trying to communicate! It's all intended. So what's my complaint? None, really; I'm just... a bit discontented with it all. Snap. Don't let me stop you from playing the thing.

TOEM

A lightweight open-worlder in the tradition of A Short Hike, only with photography. It's pleasant; it does pretty much everything it needs to do. Lots of secrets, lots of (slightly) hidden goals. Micro-quests with amusing dialogue. Nonviolent and cozy; all about doing favors for people. You only need to check off about half the goals in each level before moving on to the next, so it never gets frustrating. The views even get kind of spectacular, considering that it's all black-and-white line art.
I still didn't wind up feeling all that moved, and I'm not sure why not. Maybe it just went on a smidge too long. I finished it in one evening but it felt like I was pushing myself through to the end.

Last Call

  • by Nina Freeman and Jake Jefferies -- game site
An autobiographical game from Nina Freeman. This bites deeper than the earlier entries in the "series" (Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net): it concerns a toxic, abusive relationship. It's presented in the framework of packing up an apartment, presumably (or at least metaphorically) in the aftermath of that relationship.
What works really well is the match between mood and setting. The world is boxes of someone's possessions, someone's particular possessions -- but on fire (maybe) and booby-trapped with memories. As you process them, the flames (maybe) cool. But the worst moments are lying in wait.
What doesn't work, at least for me, is the recommended voice interface. You're meant to say "I see" or "I hear you" -- out loud, into your mic -- to progress through the memories. It's a Porpentinian idea but I found it anti-immersive. When the game asked me to speak, those were the moments that I glanced at the clock.
Nonetheless, it's a powerful piece in its offered introspection and its harsh-lit honesty.
It also felt better integrated than the previous games. I felt less like I was listening to dialogue while doing something with a mouse. The apartment of memories is an abstraction, but it also grounds those memories in a physical way, just a bit. Just enough for me to feel directly engaged with the exploration.
I think the most inspiring thing about this loose series is that the author surveys her life and sees game-seeds everywhere. I contort myself to invent any fantasy scenario which might have meaningful interactivity. These three games have very different tones and moods, but they're games -- each allows you to approach the experience in a natural and appropriate way. And that's just three personal incidents! Make it look easy, why don't you?

NORCO

A filthy, mucky, cyber-goth breakdown of the Louisiana slums. You're back in the town you swore you left forever. Your mother is dead, your brother is missing, the household robot is rebuilding the motorcycle chassis out back. Your stuffed monkey keeps beating you at staring contests.
I've played through the first act and this is firing on all cylinders so far. It's point-and-click exploration plus a "mind map" of topics as you discover them. But it's not a simple division of plot advancement in the real world and backstory in your memories. The two modes trade off roles effortlessly, letting you fill in the world by ask/answering questions about yourself and your memories. But then your mom was visiting a "neural versioning clinic", so what do you want to bet that memories are a story mechanic? Like I said, Act I. It's setup so far but I'm really impressed.
The visuals are decent pixel art -- not bad, not the best I've seen. (I wish it wouldn't rely on unenhanced pixel zooms. That's just big squares.) But the writing carries it over the top in the best way. This is a deeply screwed-over world, twenty minutes into the future of our screwed-up reality. Gig jobs, bitcoin, giant oil companies eating the world. Every line jabs you with a pinprick detail.
Looking forward to the rest.

Lake

Reviewed back in September. Sweet but so determinedly light-weight that I almost didn't care.

An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs

Reviewed back in June. I laughed a lot.
(Perhaps I am stretching to imagine that Xalavier Nelson grew up in an alien airport surrounded by comedy dog photos. Perhaps I'm stretching to imagine that he didn't.)

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