2024 IGF nominees: the favorites

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 4 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, igf, mediterranea inferno, goodbye volcano high, 1000xresist, a highland song, chants of sennaar

Wrapping it up for the year, the games that blew me away. And yes, the visual-novel trend of these posts has collided with the COVID-and-catastrophe theme of the year. What can I say: writers write what they see, in the forms they know.

  • Mediterranea Inferno
  • Goodbye Volcano High
  • 1000xRESIST
  • A Highland Song
  • Chants of Sennaar

(I was on the narrative jury -- hey, it turns out the narrative jury was announced last week! It just didn't show up on the IGF site until today. Eh, web sites, we've all been there. Anyhow, I played review copies of all these games except Chants of Sennaar.)

Mediterranea Inferno

A gonzo visual novel-ish thing about three Italian boys. They're here, they're fabulously queer, they're everybody's darlings, and they haven't seen each other since the COVID lockdowns hit. So by damn they're heading to the beach.

This is trippy and hits hard. I want to say "magical realism" -- Italian rather than Mexican-Spanish, but similarly steeped in visionary, sun-drenched cultural Catholicism. Our guys are notionally unwinding from the pandemic and trying to get enough disco, booty, and (metaphorical?) lotus fruit to ascend to (metaphorical?) Heaven. In fact what they're unwinding is their insecurities, as the demoniac and possibly allegorical Madama (pun intended) dissects their souls.

It's a short and intense ride. Mind you, one ride isn't the final ending. You can't consume enough Mirage fruit in a single run to usher all three characters to Paradise. I haven't gone back to bring everybody to completion (pun intended), but I can recommend the game without reservation, regardless.

Goodbye Volcano High

A more traditional visual novel setup: anthromorphic dinosaur teens in high school. Fang ("not Fatima, Mom") is trying to survive senior year, stay tight with a very varied crowd of friends, and get into the Battle of the Bands. Also there's this meteor in the sky? Probably not important.

It's deft and convincing and ultimately a heartbreaker. I particularly liked the supportive sibling relationship between goth-musician Fang and class-president-but-not-usually-a-jerk Naser. (Their parents are out of town for the month, but they face-chat regularly, of course. Sometimes they even remember Fang's preferred name and pronouns.) Plenty of other vivid characters; some incipient queer crushes. Lots of rhythm-game music sessions -- don't worry, there's assistive options. Also a lot of bug jokes and some RPG sessions in the garage.

The real power of the story is how it keeps the focus on the kids and their world as the whole world, well... I mentioned the approaching meteor. At first everybody's like, well, it's not really going to hit us. Then reality starts to sink in. You can play the hell out of Caldera-Fest and go on an adorable first date with your secret admirer, but what is the future, really? Growing up has been cancelled with no rain date. It's not a subtle metaphor. You can say it's fatalism, or faking a happy ending in the face of fatalism, but what else have we got any more?

I have no idea how kids are surviving these days but the game speaks that language.


Hallucinatory gonzo visual-novel-ish thing about Asian high school girls and the end of the world. A pandemic is sweeping the world, people dying by literally crying their eyes out -- we are not shy about symbolism -- except one girl, Iris, seems to be immune. No, wait, it's centuries later and humanity survives as clones, enacting a bizarre religion based on the life of their "Allmother". Or is this a memory-palace exploration from centuries after that? A simulation? A generation ship? An alien invasion?

This is the sort of story that yanks the ground out from under your feet once a chapter, if not more. But everything is grounded in a whirlwind of fever-hot themes: the pandemic, the Hong Kong protest crackdown, generational parenting trauma, high-school crushes, the necessity (impossibility) of making (faking) an adult life in a collapsing world. Everybody wears skintight cyber-neon body suits and breathing masks. For life. I told you we weren't shy about symbolism.

The visual direction is impeccably off-balance, switching between first-person and a variety of third-person cameras to emphasize the shifting viewpoints of the story. There's some other narrative tricks mixed in as well; some of them reach KR0 levels of messing with your expectations. Yes, this is well-trod territory (going back to MGS, or The Prisoner if you're my age), but 1000xRESIST is the right game for that territory and it commits.

Compelling, overwhelming, agonizing. Recommended.

A Highland Song

I'm a sucker for Inkle's narrative magic, but the story matters. So does the story shape. If it's too tightly bounded, I don't really feel interesting choices, and the narration -- however adeptly adaptive -- isn't enough to hook me. This was my reaction to Overboard (too bounded in location), Over the Alps (in direction), and Pendragon (in action).

(Yeah, Alps wasn't under the Inkle imprint, you know what I mean.)

The model runs hottest when the stories are wild, unbounded, and let you go haring off in unforeseen directions. This is why 80 Days is Inkle's enduring hit.

So, A Highland Song. And wow! Exactly the shape this engine needed. Scotland's most reckless teenager goes on wanderjahr and trips over stories. Little hints of stories at first: history brochures, recalled reminisces about hills and mines and radio towers. But as you climb (and fall and get rain-drenched and eat entirely inadequate snack food), more drifts into view: fairy tales and ghosts and figures out of time. You yourself may be such. Or it may all be the daydreams of a kid on a hike, recounted to a relative. Different tellings of the tale are happy to switch gears as needed.

As is Inkle's habit, the game does nothing to channel you towards any of these more fantastical variations. It simply leaves enough strewn around that you'll probably stumble into one. Then all the clues that led up to that one were delightful foreshadowing; the clues leading up to everything else were just the background tapestry of Scottish folklore and history, which you can enjoy without requiring structure.

(Having finished two run-throughs, I can see that the "prize" story moments are triggered by [spoilering] a [spoiler] on a [spoiler]. I've only done a couple, and I look forward to more, but I don't intend to be completist about it.)

Bonus: the exploration is spaced out with wild sprints across the mountain slopes, rhythm-bouncing to jigs and reels. I'm always up for more folk music.

Come to think of it, the "musical gimmick speeds travel" reminded me of, hm, what was it? Oh right. In fact, the folklore-strewn-across-the-countryside structure is also reminiscent of ...Tastes Like Wine. I may have gone so far as to refer to Highland Song as "Where The Water Tastes Like Whiskey". Don't tell Johnnemann.(*)

If Inkle wants to tackle American folklore next, I'd be all in favor. Until then, AHS is an invitation to uncounted(**) hours of wandering and listening and generally fossicking around the hand-painted landscape.

(* I have already told Johnnemann.)

(** Literally uncounted. Every time I jumped into AHS, I lost track of time and surfaced hours later with a head full of hills and chewy brogue.)

Chants of Sennaar

An alien-language puzzle game set in the Tower of Babel, or a Tower of Babel anyhow. The puzzles are set up to be approachable rather than linguistically overwhelming, but it conveys the experience of figuring out words and grammar and the patterns of different languages. Combine that with a solid and explorable setting, surprisingly funny writing (considering that most of the jokes come through in translation), and a vivid clear-line architectural art style, and you have one of the year's top puzzle games.

My full review is here.

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