2024 IGF nominees: weird stuff

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Comments: 11   (latest 1 day later)

Tagged: reviews, igf, in stars and time, the archivist and the revolution, slay the princess, venba, stray gods

Round two: weird stuff. Genre-pushers, wacky ideas, and things you just don't see much of. Yum!

(Okay, the genre most commonly being pushed is "visual novel". But I have a whole visual-novel post coming up next, so I split out the weirder games for this one.)

  • Venba
  • In Stars and Time
  • The Archivist and the Revolution
  • Slay the Princess
  • Stray Gods

(I was on the narrative jury and played review copies of all these games except Venba and Stray Gods.)


A small narrative game about cooking and being an Indian immigrant. Evocative, both for the smells of food and the pain of families not keeping in contact as much as they should.

This was the game where everybody loved it and I said "I dunno, not seeing it." I mean I liked it. It's a nice little story and the cooking feels right. Well done. (Ha ha sorry.) It didn't particularly hit me in the feels though.

That's just me though. Plenty of people -- not just those of Asian descent or immigrant family history -- are saying "Ow, my heart." Quite possibly you too.

In Stars and Time

A JRPG with a time-loop gimmick. You lead a party of anime-styled weirdos to defeat the King Who Froze Time. If you die (or get frozen), you can reset to a checkpoint, but you remember everything. (The other party members do not.) Thus, the usual range of information puzzles: finding secrets to be used "earlier", learning through death-and-retry. Also you clobber a lot of slimes.

I'm all in favor of time-loop gimmicks, but the JRPG format means you have to traverse a lot of samey hallways over and over again. While dodging slimes. The slimes are usually dodgeable and there's no penalty for fleeing combat. So it's not as annoying as your Final-Fantasy nightmares might lead you to expect. But then rewinding rewinds (nearly) the entire party state, so there you are, grinding for keys and level-ups again. (You keep your personal XP and skills, but not keys or items, and everybody else resets completely.) So it's still somewhat annoying.

The high point is the writing. It presents as comic buddy-banter, but there's really an awful lot of character writing underneath. (I'd call it Homestuckian if I'd ever read Homestuck.) Everybody chats on about their life and history... and the digressions accumulate into a densely-knit world over time, with one of the more thoughtful Fantasy Religion Ideas I've come across recently.

Also, creepy stuff around the edges. I didn't have time to finish; I'm pretty sure I'm less than halfway through. But there's some seriously weird stuff going on in the world's history. I intend to get back to it so I can find out what the hell.

Also, Bonnie, the party's pre-teen tagalong sidekick, is the best. Snack time!

(Again, more thoughtful than it looks. Bonnie occupies the kiddie-lit-hero role in the story, but it's not a kiddie-lit story. There's undertones to this; the adults in the story are aware of them.)

The Archivist and the Revolution

A grim tale of gig-work librarianship in a rotting dysphoric dystopia.

This is effective but not enticing. There's stuff to discover, down in the depths of the DNA archives; but any subject you care about will cost you more than you can afford. (You can barely pay rent.) Lacking hope, I struggled to get through a single run-through, much less the multiple endings on offer. Again, that's effective -- this is how the meathook future fast approaching will grind up even the most privileged. But it lacks Porpentine's gleeful transgressiveness or the fantasy-of-agency of Citizen Sleeper or Neo Cab. (All cited by the author as inspirations.)

It's worth a look. If you're a fashy accelerationist (I know you're not) you need to play this. We can't build a future entirely out of techno-utopian optimism. (See Stross on where that gets you.) Someone's gotta talk about down sides, and this game is all about the down. But recommending a game because "it's good for you" is rough praise.

Slay the Princess

Pen-and-ink visual novel slash time-loop sort of deal where you are exhorted to slay the princess. The princess is chained up in a cabin on a hill. The princess is ostentatiously creepy and maybe deserves it? Then things get weirder, and I do mean "weird fiction" in the pulp sense.

By the end -- assuming what I reached counts as an end -- you've encountered a bunch of versions of the cabin, the princess, the narrator, yourself. The characters are voiced with gusto. The art is stylish and appropriate. There's a bunch of paths and outcomes to explore.

My problem is that the game very deliberately evokes The Stanley Parable to start off with. Everybody loves The Stanley Parable but wow, does it completely deflate the stakes. This is a game; the narrator is talking to you; nothing matters! So there's nothing to be scared of, is there? You can't do cosmic weirdness irrupting into reality when there's no reality to begin with.

The game partakes of the visual-novel "Gotta do several runs to unlock everything" (even with the time-loop trope!) but I'm afraid I didn't stick more than one.

I'd say that even a short introduction to set up the player, the hill, and the cabin as a story would have done wonders. Encounter the princess as a character before you turn her into Stanley's red door. Players don't need much stage-setting to imagine a whole character, history, relationship. That's what games do! Let the narrator off the hook once the hook is set.

Stray Gods

A hand-drawn-style visual novel musical. Or "operetta" I guess.

I will admit up front that the songs aren't particularly catchy. But the fact that they exist, with all the narrative branching and mid-song verse-swapping that entails, is so mind-blowing that I will take no arguments. A winner.

On top of that, the narrative concept and story are top-notch. Greek gods (but a fresh take on them), surviving or maybe not surviving in the contemporary world. This could have made a first-rate urban fantasy novel and I'm delighted to see it handled just as well in interactive form.

Props to the visuals as well. The animation and backgrounds are simple (albeit with some sneaky zoom and rack-focus shots). But the lively character portraits are immediately engaging; they do as much to sell the story as the voice actors.

My full review is here.

I've run into a wide range of opinions since I wrote that. A lot of people only want to talk about the songs, and like I said, the songs aren't bangers. They're there to move the story forward, or rather to let you move the story forward. If you're bored of modernized Greek mythology -- or visual novels -- and the musical interaction doesn't do it for you, you may struggle with Stray Gods. I loved it though.

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