2022 IGF nominees: on history

Friday, January 7, 2022

Tagged: reviews, inua, the rewinder, blackhaven, igf, closed hands, neurocracy

IGF finalists are out! Only eight months since the last time I said this, I know. Here we go.

My theme this year is... mixed reactions. I throw no shade! I played a lot of great games. But I didn't come away with overall favorites. Instead, I played a lot of games that did something fantastic but then this other game did something else fantastic and I want to talk about all of them.

...I say "all of them", but of course this week's posts are a highly curated list. IGF got over 400 entries this year -- and that's light; it's usually 500+. I didn't play every game and I'm not going to post about every game I played. Not even every finalist. Think of this as a collection of spotlights. A glint here, a facet there.

In this post: games which interrogate history.

Several of these games use, or riff on, the "database" game model -- a collection of story snippets which the player is free to explore at will. (Or perhaps just the illusion of free will.) These days the database game is familiar from Sam Barlow's Her Story and Telling Lies, but fans of this blog will not needed to be reminded of Rob Swigart's archetypical Portal.

The database game is an easy fit for a game about history, because the database is static. It's a slice of history. The player makes no choices except what to read next. Or is that necessarily true? Let's see.

  • Closed Hands
  • Blackhaven
  • Neurocracy
  • Inua
  • The Rewinder

(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. Blackhaven is entirely free, mind you. Inua is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Closed Hands

A database game about a terrorist bombing in a (fictional) small UK city. It begins with the explosion and spirals outward through a web of connected events. We see the incident from five entangled points of view: the journalist, the analyst, the father, the witness, the bystander.

I say "spirals outward" because the bombing is the center of the web. We see chains of consequence running forward, but also chains of causality running backward. How did these people get where they are? Why are they these people?

You play through events as dialogue, news stories, email and text message exchanges. There's a bit of dialogue interactivity leading to light branching and a handful of alternate endings for the characters. (Although this was somewhat buggy. A couple of times I opened up parallel threads that were meant to be mutually exclusive.)

(It's interesting to note that the center-out structure would support alternate beginnings in exactly the same way as alternate endings. The game doesn't try this, but I wonder if the author considered it.)

The game is most interested in racism, radicalization, and the cycle of divisions that plague us. There is no such thing as an isolated incident. The story openly aligns the thread of radical violence in Islamic groups to the neofascist, white-supremacist threads in UK society. (Trumpian America is offstage but the connections are obvious.)

But it's a wide-ranging narrative -- everything is told from all sides. The focus is always on the detail and the moment. There are plenty of minor voices in addition to the five core ones. Police, boyfriends, girlfriends, bosses, random folks on the street. It's tight, keenly observed, entirely convincing in language and tone. Harrowing in content. Perhaps over-optimistic, but then perhaps I'm a pessimist. It's really good, is what I'm trying to say. This is not easy stuff to deal with; I'm glad someone is making the attempt.


A historical piece... no, wrong word. It's not set in history; it's about historians. Historiographical? You're an intern at Blackwood Manor, a small museum on the site of a (fictionalized) Virginia plantation house. The rest of the staff is out at a Flag Day picnic; you have to hold down the fort.

The opening is a tour of the site and its museum gallery, by way of getting you oriented. Then you have to scan some historical documents for the boss. As you do, some discrepancies turn up...

This is sharp on portraying systemic racism. The Blackhaven manor is a whole historical cross-section: Revolutionary era plantation life, the Civil War, Reconstruction, 20th-century heritage societies, contemporary foundations hiring interns. What we see is that racism has meant a lot of different things through American history. Every era has its sting.

The game is also good on showing actual historical research. It's a simplified scenario, but it's the kind of evidence that you'd really be putting together. On the down side, the game pretty much pulls you through in a straight line. It's a walking sim rather than a detective game. And the writing is on the clunky side. (The protagonist does a lot of talking, but I didn't feel like she became a character until the third act.)

But the museum environments definitely hit home. Everything was precise: dioramas, display cases, plaques, the rumble of the artifact case drawers.

The story has a point, anyhow, which makes it worth playing. I am interested in the upcoming sequel. Looks like Cassius really is set in history; it will tie up some of the clues that Blackhaven leaves dangling. I'm sure that mysterious figure 8 will get its day in the sun.


A multi-threaded science fiction story told through a future Wikipedia. It is a fascinating and brilliant exploration of nonlinear storytelling, a direct descendant of Portal. It is also rather hard going.

It's Oct 1, 2049. The world is a heady mix of climate change, multinational tech conglomerates, injectable neural colloids, reality TV, and mad fish disease. The CEO of Zhupao Ltd has just been assassinated. Lots of other stuff is going on too.

Neurocracy extends the now-familiar idea of the database game with the even-more-familiar idea of the Wikipedia trawl. Pick an article (or click "random"); read up; follow links; slowly assemble a snapshot of the world.

...And then you can jump to Oct 2. This is a layered snapshot. Every article evolves from day to day, covering a ten-day crisis. New articles are added each day, following up critical actors or events as they emerge.

This is, as I said, brilliant. We've all seen encyclopedia stories (shoutout to The Book of the War) but nobody's done a sequential one. Controlling the vertical and the horizontal! Facts evolve. Details are edited in and out (by who?). Accusations are leveled, twisted, and upgraded to truth -- or memory-holed. You have to compare each day's posts to the previous day. The "view changes" button is your friend.

The down side is that, well, you're reading Wikipedia articles. I love a "news article" interlude; who doesn't? That impersonal contrasting tone. It lets you break from your protagonist's viewpoint and throw a juicy handful of details into the mix. But a story that's all news article? 100% objective-dispassionate voice? It's hard to digest.

(Neurocracy does not encompass the Wikipedia trope of the discussion page. Maybe that's what I was missing; the personal bit, where the editors' own voices come out.) (I know, it wouldn't exactly fit in with the story...)

I found I was only able to get through two or three story-days (an hour or so of reading) per session. Then my eyes glazed over and I had to put it down for the night. That made for about three real-time evenings -- and the end of that wasn't really a resolution. A bunch of threads connected up, yes, but it was still the middle of an ongoing story (history). Not to mention that I probably missed some of the implicit connections.

So, overall: you should play/read this thing. Pay attention and learn. There's something in this direction and I want to see the next step.


  • by Iko / The Pixel Hunt / ARTE France -- game site

This looks nifty! A historical game about the 1845 Franklin Arctic expedition. You're a journalist reporting from a (modern) research boat which is recovering artifacts from the (historical) sunken ships. I can't tell from the demo how fictionalized the history is, but it's presenting an interesting mix of British, European, and Intuit takes on events.

The narrative structure is a topic-query system; you discover evidence and then peek into the heads of the various crew members to see what they think. This is then extended into the historical period, reconstructing the events of 1845. It's not particularly interactive -- the gameplay seems to be lawnmowering options to advance. But it's good pacing and it gives you the sense of digging into clues.

Also, I like the hand-drawn watercolor style.

It's a short demo, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to keep an eye on it.

The Rewinder

Pixelly point-and-click based on Chinese mythology. You are an investigator from the afterlife, digging into the affairs of the living. In the physical world, you hunt for clues and solve puzzles. In the world of memory, you can abstract ideas from people's memories and use them to convince other people to make better decisions. Changing people's minds in the past changes the present.

(Okay, putting this in my "historical" post is a stretch. But it has the idea of interrogating a history.)

This combines a bunch of mystery-game ideas: a rewindable timeline, a memory map, combining ideas, partial solutions. (If you don't completely fix a past timeline, you can advance in the game with partial credit. At least I think that's what happened in my second attempt!)

The game plays a little awkwardly, and the translation isn't great, but I think it works. It really gets into the mindset of the Chinese afterlife -- not that I'm an expert! But it's got the judges of Hell, the spirit offerings, the hungry ghosts. The broth of the afterlife. Feels solid. And the investigative gameplay gives you scope to think about the scenarios and figure out what's going on (or fail to).

I haven't played very far in, but I will keep on. Recommended for storytelling and a good mystery-game implementation.