Recent narrative games: summer 2022 edition

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Tagged: reviews, stray, citizen sleeper, i was a teenage exocolonist, house of da vinci

  • House of Da Vinci 3
  • Citizen Sleeper
  • Stray
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist

House of Da Vinci 3

The review is mostly to say "Hey, this exists!" I wasn't expecting it. Happened to look at the iOS store one day, which I don't always, but there it was. (iOS only right now; Steam says Mac/PC is coming.)

If you're not up on these, House of Da Vinci is what you play when you run out of The Room sequels. Or if you don't want to follow Fireproof down their current VR-only alley. Yes, the Da Vinci games started as straight imitation of The Room formula, but so what? It's a good formula. Gizmos you can push, pull, twist, tweak, slide, and peer at through various magical lenses. Wish there were more of them.

(Quite a few games have tried to imitate this form, but not many nail the lush tactility and visual flair that makes it work. Machinika Museum is the closest I've run across. There was also one called Luna Strange but the publisher seems to have busted after the first chapter.)

Anyhow, Da Vinci 3 is an ambitious wrap-up for the series. It's considerably bigger than the first two chapters, with several (five? I lost count) puzzle-packed areas plus interstitial cut scenes. Lots to fiddle with. Nifty time-viewer gimmick. Cesare Borgia, history's favorite masked villain. (Just search that link for "Wa ha ha!") Also, the game exists, which was a nice surprise.

Citizen Sleeper

A delightful little RPG. Well, "little" compared to Disco Elysium, which people inevitably will. It's not really the same thing at all except the theme of people living in the ruins of somebody else's utopia.

You're a knock-off mind-clone, copied into indentured servitude in a cheap robot body. Someone dug you out of a spaceship in a scrapyard on a space-station that's falling to pieces. So are you. Wanna make something of it?

The themes (and the mushrooms) may remind you of Voyageur, but Citizen Sleeper is a traditional RPG with a tidy bundle of branching plots. What sets it off is its thoughtful setting and its sweet little game-mechanical engine.

The standard RPG setup is a forest of skill checks. You pick your goals, level up your skills, and take your best shot. In CS, you can tackle up to five challenges per day; the innovation is that you roll your dice first and then decide what checks to apply them to. (An iteration of the old "Fortune In The Middle" idea.) The result is that you have quite a bit of narrative control without ever losing the narrative tension of a rag-tag chancer buffeted by fate.

It's a simple system, and nicely transparent too. You can see the dice. If a task will become available in N days, or has to be completed within N days, you can see those timers tick down. Most of the big story goals require several successes to complete, and those counters are visible too. Turns out that's all you need to rig up short- and long-term goals -- a daily struggle for survival and slow-growing blooms of hope for the future. Hyphae. Whatever.


I didn't even have to mention the title. I just told people "I'm playing the kitty game" and everybody said yay! The kitty game was great! It was pretty great.

Mechanically, this is Tomb Raider but you're a cat. Except you never slip or fall or miss a jump, because you're a cat. You can die -- there's some levels where slimes or killer robots chase you -- but then there's levels where you just explore or talk to hapless robots.

(You don't talk to robots; your drone buddy does.)

The story is pleasant without being particularly memorable. Really the point is the background setting of gentle goofball robots who have constructed themselves in the shape of (even more background) vanished humanity, without particularly understanding what they are doing, but so what. It's a robot world now. Also you (the cat) are poking through the shape of an adventure game without particularly understanding what you are doing, because you are a cat, but that's okay, you (the player) can drive that bus. Cat-bus. Whatever. It's a nice parallel.

Stray might be a bit game-y. You don't have to be good at jumping puzzles -- those are unfailable. But you do have to be half-decent at running-from-monsters scenes and hiding-from-guards scenes. Those aren't hard from a gamer's perspective, but I bet some players are just here for the cat and will get frustrated on those levels.

Also it was too easy to forget where you last saw a given robot. Needs scent traces or something.

But generally I tooled around on my little cat feet and jumped up on things and knocked stuff over and found secrets and had a great time. Recommended.

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist

A delightful little RPG, I would have said at first. After a few sessions I realized it's a large RPG. Character-focused; the writing is really good; the setting is interesting and you can take the story in a lot of directions. But it's not as compelling as Citizen Sleeper. I had to sit around for a while thinking about why.

The structure is laid out explicitly: you choose an activity to do every month for ten years of your life, age ten to age twenty. A year has 13 months, so you get 130 turns. This feels rather regimented. Well, fair: the life of a ten-year-old kid is pretty regimented. You can decide what class to take, or do sports, or help out in various kid-accessible jobs around the colony. Thus your life advances.

You can also talk to other kids; that's a free action. So, to be mechanical about it, you've got a personal progression track and a separate bunch of friend storylines you can advance, dating-sim-style. (Which of course turns into an actual dating sim once puberty strikes.)

Naturally, plenty of stuff gets added onto this framework. As you get older, you find ways to do more things: better jobs, sneaking out of the colony, then (later) legitimately exploring outside the colony. An emergency or two overturns your life. The basic rhythm of "what to do this month" is just a stat-bumping platform for the meat of the game.

The problem, I think, is that the game doesn't really try to convey what you're building stats towards. You know that you need Toughness 40 to get the next story bit with Anemone, or Empathy 20 to get a story bit in the creche. But you never know what the consequences of those story bits will be -- new jobs, or new colony events, or what? It's always "I guess I'll bump that stat and see."

The clocks in Citizen Sleeper, in contrast, are extremely explicit. You need to push your connection to this person ten ticks in four days in order to get your next dose of medicine. You need to push twenty ticks to repair this ship. There's consequences there, too -- some jobs will go wrong or take you somewhere unexpected -- but you always have your eyes on a specific prize.

Disco Elysium (sorry, gotta go there) also gives you explicit goals. You need to bump your Rhetoric for this challenge, your Endurance for that one. The challenges are all in-your-face -- you've failed each one at least once, so it's personal. Bumping a stat doesn't guarantee you success, but it gives you another chance to try and that's what keeps you going.

Teenage Exocolonist is missing that bit of visibility. Until you get into the explorable maps; then you have a nice clear progression towards a (physical) destination. But you can't spend the whole game out there. You wind up back at school for most of your turns, if not most of your play time, and after a while it feels more like an idle clicker than an RPG.

The game challenges themselves are a card-game system. Straights and flushes score points; you need a given score to beat the challenge. This is simple but effective -- it's just thinky enough without distracting you from the story.

The comparison here is Signs of the Sojourner, where the card-games were conversations. That felt unfocused to me; was it a dialogue system or a challenge system? Am I making choices by playing particular cards? Teenage Exocolonist makes it simple: you are trying to reach <N> points to succeed at <X>. This works way better.

It's almost too simple, except for the clever bit: the cards are all rewards from earlier story events. Not only does this give you an implicit "power-up" advancement model, but the game is constantly reflecting your character's story. This card is when I made friends with a lizard! This card is when I got mad at my dad! This card is when I won the trivia contest, and that kicks ass! Triumphant outcomes give great cards; ambivalent story outcomes give cards with drawbacks (but they're still useful). Even your weak starting cards (...when I learned to crawl...) have story value, so you're not entirely annoyed to see them.

So I was into some parts of the game, and somewhat bored by other parts, and I got through my ten years to a... somewhat inconclusive ending. "Life goes on. It's not perfect." Is that satisfying? I mean, it's honest! The reward for surviving your teen years is the rest of your life.

Also, to be fair, I deliberately bypassed at least two story options that would have ended the game in more science-fictional (world-saving, transcendent, apocalyptic...) ways. So I got the ending I chose. I smooched the girl I had a crush on. She didn't want to date and that was honest too.

Recommended, but I want the next generation of story-RPGs to be more goal-directed.