2022 IGF nominees: miscellaneous

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Tagged: reviews, papetura, strange horticulture, kathy rain, dagon, igf, lacuna, the remainder, sable

Yeah, I tried to come up with a category to fit this batch into. Nope, didn't work.

You could maybe call these "familiar game genres with a twist", but then you could say that about every game, right? We're all in the business of offering reassuring familiarity with a twist.

  • Sable
  • Papetura
  • Lacuna
  • Dagon
  • Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut
  • Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder
  • Strange Horticulture

(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Sable on my own before IGF judging started. Dagon is entirely free. Strange Horticulture and The Remainder are not yet released.)


An open-world exploration game with climbing puzzles and narrative. You're a teenager, at the age where a teenager gets a hoverbike and a glidey-stone and goes off bildungsroming. The world is full of things to do. And climb. (But not fight, not in this game.) Figure out what you want to be when you grow up!

You inhabit an egalatarian techno-tribal world with lots of social niches, plenty of lively characters, and a bit of SFnal backstory. But, let's face it, it's all about the Moebius-esque art style. The art style is worth the entire game. Blazing days, pastel-washed nights, clear-line ink-etched detail. The quests and climbing are an excuse to go zimming across the sand. And then climb stuff.

I played the initial public release, which was rather regrettably buggy; the menus and inventory screens had a strong tendency to go off the rails. (There's been patches since then.) But I was able to finish the game in spite of the bugs, and I'm not going to count them against it.

I will say that the clair-ligne visuals and the environments were what really hooked me, but the narrative is solid too. The dialogue isn't particularly deep or interactive, but a lot of love went into this quirky world.

Oh, and I enjoyed the soundtrack -- that went straight on my "buy" list.

(I note that Sable got on the narrative and audio IGF lists, but was not mentioned for Best Visuals. I guess not everybody agrees with me! Which is why I post these reviews.)


A small point-and-click of the modern puzzle-box style. (In the vein of Samorost or Submachine, that is, rather than the classic Lucas/Sierra adventure.) You're an animated curl of paper in a paper-modelled world. Someone has stolen the light -- or set the world on fire -- or something; it's a nonverbal narrative whose metaphors shift playfully underfoot. That's fine, though. The goal is to advance, as is usual in these games. Do the next thing. Get to the end, everybody cheers.

The puzzles are all about light, illumination, helpful critters, and shooting spitballs at everything. Some of the puzzles were kind of obtuse, but there's a full contextual hint system, so you're only as stuck as you want to be. Although there's also some timing and dexterity mixed in; nothing hardcore but you might need a few tries to get through certain tasks.

Mostly it's an excuse to look at the trippy glowing papier-mâché environments and the cute paper critters. Nothing wrong with that.


Pixel-art sci-fi police procedural. You're a cop on a near-future-ish planet. (Not our future, not our solar system, but the tropes are familiar.) An important diplomat is visiting from the next planet over. Guess what would enmesh an honest flatfoot in a tangle of messy politics? Crime, crime! It's everywhere.

Nice, expressive pixel-art style -- lots of layering for the smoggy skylines and such.

This is solidly put together but it didn't quite ring my chimes. The political situation is made of the kind of one-line characterizations you expect from an RPG sourcebook. Planet of unobtanium miners, colony wants freedom, rich corporations, terrorists, gentrification. (Cop corruption, but not as much on cop racism as I'd expect in BLM times.) The detective stuff, too, tilts away from lies and motivation. Your cases are picked out in clear material clues, drawn with blue outlines so you don't miss anything. It's entirely playable but not much on subtlety.

It leans on the language of noir -- dirty streets, a nagging nicotine habit -- and indeed you get drawn into a moral swamp of complicity. You have to make choices; the story branches based on them. Also on whether you solve the cases correctly. This is the kind of detective game where you can screw up. No take-backs if you turn in a report accusing the wrong guy. Thus, a range of possible endings from bad to could-be-worse.

Again, though, I never entirely felt the punch of my various choices. The consequences were there, but the protagonist's cigarette-break noir monologues didn't convince me that they hurt. I don't know. Noir ain't easy.


Walking-sim-ish illustration of Lovecraft's early story "Dagon". The complete text of the story is narrated (it's short) with a sequence of pannable scenes. The only interactivity is to advance, and (optionally) hunt for footnote-spots which detail the background of Lovecraft's life and world.

The concept (a "pano-novela"?) is worth a look. However, this example doesn't sell it. The initial environments of squalid garret and cargo ship are nicely illustrated; the seascapes are really atmospheric. However, the Lovecraftian guts of the story -- right where you're supposed to be overwhelmed with the mind-destroying horror -- come out rather flat and uninspired. Neither the monolith nor the monster does much to convince me of the protagonist's mental break.

Anyhow, the idea of using an uninterrogated Lovecraft story is pretty sketchy at this point. The closest the story comes to acknowledging this is when it illustrates the fish-people as having narrow, pinched mouths. (Because if you follow the text's description of "shockingly wide and flabby lips" you've drawn a golliwog caricature.) But the game dodges the question of why it dodged this question. Awkward all round.

Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut

I did not play the original release of Kathy Rain, so I don't know what's different. Walkthroughs imply that some puzzles and scenes have been added.

In any case, what we have is a good solid point-and-click with decent pixel art and excellent attention to detail. That's artistic detail (rain on the windows) as well as UI detail (the game minimizes inventory juggling and annoying repeated actions). It's also pleasantly forgiving about different ways to combine items or manipulate machines. When I tried something, it generally worked.

Puzzles: mostly good, not too tricky. You'll spend more time crossing the map asking about clues than being stuck. (A couple of the riddles were underclued, but that's what walkthroughs are for.) As for the story -- well, there's a lot of Silent Hill in its DNA, but the focus is on Kathy and her personal demons rather than generic blood-and-barbed-wire. Kathy is entertaining enough to carry the show. The other characters all manage to show a bit of depth, too. Good enough to be getting on with.

Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder

Visual novel: you wake up with amnesia in a wizard's house. Can't exactly criticize the setup, can I? (You will get this joke if you played my 2004 game The Dreamhold.)

The Remainder is the kind of esoteric fantasy that asks you to read a lot of background between the lines. I'm usually into that, but this has a lot of background, and a lot of lines, and not all that much going on to anchor the story. You've got some sort of (mind-wiped) romance with the hot silver-haired wizard who feeds you the plot, but the dialogue doesn't really carry it. Mostly you alternate between hallucinating and complaining to your maybe-lover. In theory you have a goal (find a spell in your spellbook) but the game gives you very few choices that relate to that.

Imaginative and atmospheric, but I wasn't that engaged by the intro chapter. You may well like it more than I did, though.

Strange Horticulture

A puzzle game of herbal lore. You have to collect plants and identify them based on partial descriptions -- color, shape, taste, smell, folkloric associations. Think Obra Dinn, except leaves and flowers instead of corpses. Then you offer the plants to the villagers in exchange for more info. There's also maps, riddles, secrets, a bit of potion-brewing, and basically a whole lot of stuff that I enjoy.

This is a great example of full-modal investigative experience. You really do have to observe everything the game tells you. Guessing is never strictly necessary, but there's lots of process of elimination, and I was often somewhat uncertain about my conclusions. Wrong guesses accumulate "dread", and if you get too much dread, it's bad. (I never did but I had to be careful. I guess that means it's well-balanced.)

The setting is generally European-ish medieval-ish, without much distinction other than "somewhat creepy". (Not Failbetter-level creepy, but like I said, you have a dread meter.) Lots of recurring characters who visit your shop, each with their own plot thread -- reminded me a bit of Astrologaster. An overall plot which is satisfying if somewhat stiff. A handful of endings based on a handful of choice points. A cat to pet.

I had a lot of fun. It's a narrative-oriented game where you use a lot of fun toys to advance the story. It's not primarily a story game, mind you. Call it an herbalist procedural.