A few narrative game comments

Friday, December 1, 2023

Tagged: reviews, jusant, the invincible

IGF season is upon us, which means a lot of review posts in the pipeline for January. In the meantime, here's a couple of games that aren't IGF entries!


Rock-climbing puzzle game in a strange world that blends desert and coral reef. The sea is gone, but the cnidaria remain.

The climbing emphasizes persistence and planning, not speed or timing. You're always roped, for a start. If you fall, the worst that can happen is dangling and climbing back up.

I thought the game could have leaned harder into the climbing-sandbox idea. The engine supports very open mechanics: you can attach your rope anywhere, swing from any attachment point, jump from any hold. But most of the routes are restricted to a single good path. Occasionally the game hands you a big open wall with lots of options, but I felt like that should have been the whole game. At least after the intro chapter.

But it's a lovely world, full of quiet depths and secrets and sea-colored light. I was delighted to spend my hours ascending through it.

The story... I dunno. Everybody wants to talk about climate change. I get this. The journal-threads of communities surviving in a strange world: great stuff. (Reminded me of Sable.) But the fairy-tale "boy ascends mountain, talks to ancient machinery, a miracle occurs -- whales!" That just doesn't land any more. That's 20th-century fantasy. We gotta save ourselves.

Single-player videogames are very biased towards the single-savior story. Of course! We still need to start thinking in bigger terms though.

The Invincible

"Explore creepy abandoned spaceships from your first-person space-helmet" is a pretty well-established trope at this point. (Event[0], Tacoma, Moons of Madness, Deliver Us the Moon... Even Outer Wilds starts there, although it takes it to another level entirely.)

The layering of Lovecraftian slime varies; the puzzle-to-story ratio varies. But most of these games have pretty linear plots. You explore, but the puzzle gating pins you to a well-crafted sequence of story beats.

The Invincible is a satisfying break from that tradition. It leans hard into meaningful story variation. Character interaction scenes have several possible outcomes which affect the following chapters. When you explore an area, you can be as thorough as you please, or not. Reading more notes and journals gives you a different perspective on later revelations, but they're not the main story. Even when getting from point A to point B, you've usually got a couple of possible routes through the delightfully topological landscape. The difference may be just "cautiously navigate a slope" vs "slip, scream, and fall," but it feels like a different story beat.

I haven't read the Stanislaw Lem story that the game is based on. Feels authentic to Lem's writing as I remember it, though. (Creepy dystopian alienness Lem, not comedy spacepilot / robot Lem.)

There's also a lot of climbing, which somehow ties The Invincible in with Jusant even though the gameplay is completely different. It's extremely haptic climbing. You heave yourself up with your fat space-glove hands, and sometimes you slip and fall, and you can feel it in your gut. That's how I'd sum up the game: it uses first-person to make an alien world visceral, but it doesn't neglect the narrative variation. I liked it.