Recent narrative games: winter 2021 edition

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Tagged: reviews, inua, far changing tides, aspire, conway, spirit of the north, fallow

Or is that winter 2022? What I've played since January, anyhow.

  • Aspire: Ina's Tale
  • Spirit of the North
  • Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View
  • Inua: A Story in Ice and Time
  • Fallow
  • Far: Changing Tides

Aspire: Ina's Tale

2D action-adventure -- an even mix of puzzles and action scenes. No combat, but a lot of running-and-jumping chases. The latter are timed. If you're looking for a pure puzzle experience, this might get annoying. I didn't have trouble with them, though.

The basic mechanic (besides jumping and box-dragging) is a set of magic powers that you can apply to certain boxes: illuminate, expand, levitate. You do a nice variety of things with each power and then start combining them.

Very pretty in a polygonal Art-Deco-ish style which I really like. (It stands out in a world overburdened with pixel art. See also Gris and Opus: Echo of Starsong.) (Not that these games look the same! But they share some inspiration.)

It's short and the puzzles don't get very deep, but it's a satisfactory diversion.

Spirit of the North

Third-person 3D action-adventure. You are a fox chasing a spirit-fox. Some jumping, some puzzles, but it's close to a walking (fox-trotting) simulator in spirit.

The levels are enjoyably knotty 3D environments. The puzzles are mild. Most of them involve picking up spirit-energy from flowers and using it to open doors and stuff. If you want to be ambitious, there are corpses and staffs more trickily hidden around the world; bring a stick to each person and he will play fetch with you! No, I'm kidding about the fetch part.

It's all about the landscapes, which are absolutely lovely Iceland-inspired explorable art. My limited experience says they nailed it. The fox has lots of extremely cute and convincing behaviors. (Except, and I realize this makes me the asshole, there are no red foxes in Iceland! I guess Arctic foxes were too chibi-muppet-ish for the story?)

Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View

You're an old retired detective. But being wheelchair-bound doesn't take the gum out of your shoes... or however that cliche goes... anyway, you spend an awful lot of time peering out your back window with binoculars and a pocket camera. Especially when the neighbor's seven-year-old daughter is kidnapped! Time to start connecting snapshots on the corkboard with string and thumbtacks.

This is primarily a character drama, starring a courtyard full of over-the-top characters plus you, Conway, the world's worst snoop. Much to the annoyance of your daughter, the actual uniformed bobby who needs you to back the hell off. The joke (it is a joke?) is that you do an absolutely terrible job of tracking down poor Charlotte May -- but a great job of knocking everybody else's secrets loose as you bang your chair around. Plenty to discover, and lots of satisfying puzzle-exploration as you maneuver hither and yon.

Each chapter ends with the inevitable connect-the-clues scene. This felt a little clunky; the collected clues are sometimes redundant, but you have to thumbtack exactly the right ones. (Conway's diffident murmur of "I have to examine all the evidence" wears thin real fast.) On the up side, the thumbtack board lets you make Conway be competent for a change, and then he's off to the next bout of investigation. Which, as I said, is the fun part.

If the rear-window-detective setup sounds familiar, you're thinking of The Flower Collectors. Right down to the wheelchair and the flower motif... but the games play out their common concept quite differently. In Flower Collectors, the window view was the center of gameplay. You raced the clock to track people's movements and tag evidence. In Conway, the window scenes are really just setup. You catch a tableau, hit the shutter, watch the action... it feels interactive, but this is sleight-of-camera; you'll see everything you need. The main action starts when you put away your camera, roll downstairs, and talk (or lockpick) your way into a neighbor's flat for some real clue collection. Or, as P.C. Catherine would say, trespassing and interfering.

The other difference is that Flower Collectors was a very specific slice of post-Franco Barcelona. Everything in the story revolved around that: politics, characters, social roles. Conway is set in 1950s somewhere-in-Greater-London. It's a pretty well-covered setting (at least for this reader), and aside from classic cars and a mention of the end of war-rationing, it's not all that distinctive.

Comparisons aside, I enjoyed poking around disturbing everyone's peace until the final confrontation. Intricate maps; lots of different kinds of puzzle interaction. Good voice acting. Excellent lock-picking UI. I have no idea if it's setting up a sequel (or prequel?) but I'd play another one.

Inua: A Story in Ice and Time

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

I played the first chapter for IGF and wrote it up in January. Now the full game is out.

The demo chapter was intriguing, and the game more than fulfils that promise.

The game concerns the 1845 Franklin expedition, whose members disappeared in the Arctic after abandoning their ice-bound ships. It begins in the modern era: a journalist arrives on a research boat which is recovering artifacts from the sunken ships. But the game soon shifts to a historical story thread from the expedition's era, and then a third thread about a WW2 journalist in the same region.

I say "historical", but the game is not meant as a recreation. It fictionalizes both the story of the expedition and the story of the modern search for what happened. Real scientific discoveries are incorporated into the game, but it's not trying to present "what probably happened". Instead, the story is framed by an Inuit tale of Nanurluk, the white bear.

This is sneaky, because the original viewpoint character, the journalist, is not Indigenous; she's Black and (if I recall correctly) Canadian. The research boat has a variety of characters on board, so you know the game is concerned with voice. Indeed, the core mechanic is peeking into people's heads to see how much they disagree. But it's not presented as an own-voices story.

Nonetheless, as you play, you start to realize that the core tension is between the Inuit viewpoint and everybody else's. The Indigenous characters follow along with the "protagonists" in every time period; the story of Nanurluk continues to play out. And it's not a Westernized story. It's not a slay-the-monster or coming-of-age story. It's stranger, and the strangeness creeps in around the edges of what the Canadians and Britons and Americans are seeing.

(I'm positive that somebody on the design team was thinking about the lyric: "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.")

As I said in the original post, the game mechanic is discovering topics and then "asking" characters what they think. It's not really a choice-based system. When a new topic pops up, the game flags every character who has a new response, and then you run through them until you find the next topic. This eventually gets intertwined between time periods, so while it's not puzzle-like, it's complex enough to feel exploratory.

(The game does get puzzle-like at one point. There's a scene where you have to query a particular combination of topics to move the story forward. "One" is an uncomfortable number of puzzles for a game to have, of course. The first chapters teach you not to worry about game state; but then this scene has some state; but then it never happens again. It's not a heavyweight puzzle, though, so it probably won't throw players too far off.)

Inua is hard to categorize, and I love that. It's historical, but as I said, it disclaims being history. Parts of it might be science fiction or cosmic horror. It could be fable or parable. It's your call, really. But remember who's telling the story.


An eerie, off-kilter little game. It's a recognizable genre: an intimate and personal vein of blood, elliptically projected into a science-fictional wasteland. ("Porpentinian" is easy to say, but it really did remind me of With Those We Love Alive.) But I'm used to encountering those in the text-game world. Fallow comes out of the Nintendo RPG tradition -- chibi-headed pixel sprites running across a low-fi landscape.

To be clear, Fallow is not beholden its FF/Zelda roots. There's no combat; this is an exploration game, a walking sim with light puzzle elements. It picks a stunning and very particular visual style out of its sprites. Cyclopean alien beings, or their remnants, loom over the tech-rotted wasteland in a crushed palette of violet and ochre. The only touch of green is your character and a few alien intrusions in jade. (Now we're thinking N. K. Jemisin.)

You inhabit this wasteland with your sisters, eking out survival from a dying farm. Except your sisters are gone and you're sleepwalking into the wilderness every night. Or perhaps just hallucinating. Definitely hallucinating. So what happenened? Don't expect simple answers, but you might find an ambiguous peace.

I'm pleased to see this kind of personal statement turn up on Steam. (IFComp is great but not everybody plays those games.) Recommended.

Footnote: I said "light puzzle elements", but there's a puzzle lock that I never got past. I gather from discussion that this leads to a secret ending if you do a lot more puzzle-work than I put in.

Far: Changing Tides

I don't think I ever reviewed Far: Lone Sails. In outline it was the same kind of wordless side-scrolling action-adventure as the Limbo / Inside games. But instead of the ghost-and-shadow horror mode which that genre seems perpetually stuck in, Far was a love story between a kid and a gloriously cantankerous rolling land-sail-steam-barge-tank contraption. You puttered across the world, juggling gates, cranes, machinery, and of course upgrades to your Whatsit.

Now, the sequel: Whatsit's a boat!

These games aren't exactly narrative. The protagonist(s) aren't characterized outside the challenges they face. There's an implicit background story implied -- lightly implied -- by the post-civilizational environment and the remnant machines you discover. But the joy is mostly in exploring, finding strange devices, making them do your bidding or making them yours.

In principle this isn't far off the Myst heritage of puzzle games. Far isn't puzzle-focused, though. Not primarily! It aims for a balance between figuring stuff out, making use of your knowledge, and patient routine. You get long stretches of simply sailing. Sailing isn't an idle activity. The weather shifts occasionally; you have to fuss with the sails or the engine or the welding torch. But it's not a puzzle, and it's not meant to be. Until you reach the next bit that is.

(In some sense, Far: Changing Tides swaps out the navigation challenge of the walking sim -- discern the landscape, find your way -- for the mechanical work of running your Whatsit-ship. Your course is fixed but you still have to pay attention. Different tactics to make a game which is about the journey.)

Anyhow, the journey is worth it, because playing with toys is fun. Also, it's pretty. You know how sometimes you look at a game scene and say "Wow, that looks exactly like the concept art" even though you've never seen the concept art? This is that. Painterly.