Spring narrative games

Monday, March 4, 2024

Tagged: reviews, harmony the fall of reverie, universe for sale, the roottrees are dead

Is it spring? It's less winter, anyhow. If I play another batch of games in April I'll need to invent "second spring" for the blog post title.

  • Universe For Sale
  • Harmony: The Fall of Reverie
  • The Roottrees are Dead

Universe For Sale

A sweet, bizarre little point-and-click set in a post-industrial slum floating in, or rather sinking into, the cloud-decks of Jupiter. The environmental shields are falling apart so people put up tarps to keep out the corrosive hydrogen rain.

("Sounds more like Venus, amirite," I mutter, but that's just me.)

You alternately play a nameless walking skeleton and Lila, who stirs universes up out of a teacup. It gets weirder from there. There's mechanical orangutans. I think I played for an hour before I realized that the skeleton's head isn't even attached; it floats three inches above his collar. (He practices an ascetic discpline of detachment, see.) Also he keeps waking up in a rubble-strewn alley.

I'd say the sheer over-the-top imagination of the world somewhat outstrips the gameplay, which is a pretty standard walk-and-talk adventure with occasional puzzles. Chapters are broken up by Lila's day job, making universes to order for petty cash. This is, again, picturesque -- but not all that deep as a game mechanic, and not all that integrated with the rest of the game.

File it with Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, maybe; ambitious ideas and gorgeous art that don't entirely cohere into a game. But it's definitely worth a look anyway.

Harmony: The Fall of Reverie

A visual novel about corporate oppression and popular revolution in a Mediterranean city.

On the face of it that sounds like Solace State, and indeed there's a strong comparison between the games. You've got "Mono Konzern", a monopolistic FaceGoogMazon whose surveillance drones also offer same-day package delivery. You've got vibrant street communities being squeezed out by corporate growth and police brutality. You've got cinematic 3D set dressing behind the hand-drawn characters.

Solace State came off as rather simplistic, though -- a sort of cartoon guide to social activism. Harmony digs deeper. You get a better sense of people's lives, first in the gradually worsening utopia-dystopia of the island, then in the shock of action, then in the aftermath. It's lightly sketched, but these are real people, and their lives go to hell over the course of the story. You choose the consequences but you don't get easy answers. Fighting the system hurts like hell -- that's what Harmony gets right.

The other half of the story is the Aspirations, six god-like figures from the island's ancient history. Your contact with them and with Reverie, their spiritual realm, will help you guide the city's fate.

The obvious comparison there is Stray Gods. This isn't Greece and the Aspirations aren't familiar gods, but they serve the same role: invisible figures who give you an edge in the real world as they entangle you in their backstage schemes.

Sadly, Harmony has no singing. (Despite the title.) It doesn't really try to bring the Aspirations into the story, either. They're NPCs, with voice acting and nice concept art, but they're not characters. They have no personalities or inner lives. (One of the Aspiration smooched a human, it turns out, but the plot whooshes past this with barely a nervous glance.)

This is not a complaint about the writing. The game's human characters are richly drawn and engaging. They're who the game is about. But the six Aspirations are basically just literalizations of your story stats. You make choices and the stats go up and down: "bliss", "chaos", "truth", and so forth. (I almost wonder if the game wasn't written only about the human world, with the Aspirations personified in late in design.)

It's rather a disappointment after Stray Gods, whose Idols are all leading lights of the story and show-stealers to boot. (If you didn't buy into Pan's smirk the minute you met him, I don't know who you are.)

On the other hand, the story stats are a serious part of this game! If you imagine narrative games on a scale from "hidden stats" (Heaven's Vault) to "exposed mechanics" (Disco Elysium), Harmony is doing its best to bust through the "exposed" end and go a half-block farther up the street.

You are Reverie's newest Oracle, see, and your Oracular power is seeing the plot graph. In every chapter, you can see exactly how much "bliss", "power", "chaos", etc you need to reach any given chapter-ending. And then you can map out the choice-route needed to get there. Similarly, the branches blocked out by your previous actions are mapped out, taunting you with their inaccessibility.

This certainly puts a spotlight on the narrative limitations of branches-and-stats game design. But then it says, look, this is the game, let's play it by the rules. I repeatedly found myself caught between the story arc I wanted (say, supporting the city's community ideals, its "bond" stat) and the actions I would have to take to get there (spending a day with my estranged mother rather than my forlorn stepsister, "bond" vs "bliss"). My ideals prevented me from making time with my hot corporate crush -- not as an explicit choice, but as a matter of what stats I needed when. This is good! It's the narrative tension any choice-based game would go for; it's just laid out for you to plan.

Well, mostly laid out. The board is sometimes veiled for a few steps ahead. It's also sometimes unclear which paths will block out or uncover what other paths. The game wants the map to be explicit, but I still stumbled into an unintended path a few times, just by misreading the presentation. I may take another run at the story (hot corporate crush awaits!) -- but, sigh, so many new games to play.

(That's a whole different source of narrative tension.)

Anyhow: an interesting narrative experiment and an excellent story overall.

The Roottrees are Dead

The latest hit in what I've started calling the static deduction genre. (C.f. Obra Dinn, Golden Idol. "Static deduction" because you're not a detective running around questioning people; you're outside a frozen world, looking at snapshots.)

The Roottrees are a five-generation dynasty of candy magnates from western Pennsylvania. Or rather, they were, because the most famous scions of that line just died in a plane crash. You're handed a blank family tree and ordered to fill in the names, faces, and professions of every blood descendant of old Elias Roottree. It's 1998 and you have a state-of-the-art terrible web browser. Get searching.

The game is rough around the edges, but it's very playable. I was able to solve all the core questions, most of the optional collateral info, and got half credit on the final bonus round.

The rough spots are about tracking your clues. You have a journal which automatically gets copies of all photos and documents that you find. That's great -- easy to browse, with a cue for which pages still conceal useful leads. But the journal doesn't track your web searches. If you found a name or reference that needs more followup, you have to remember what you typed to get back to it. (Or take extensive notes, which is what I did.) And repeating a search is deliberately annoying, complete with 9600-baud page loads and fake modem screech. It's cute for the first five minutes.

(Really, I think all this needs is a browser history. Say, a journal page that lists every web search term that didn't get a generic "404 nothing interesting".)

The other problem I ran into: it's supposed to be obvious that you should web-search the name of every periodical you see mentioned. Then it's entered into your library list and you can search that periodical for more specific articles. This is a great idea -- contextual search results -- but I somehow missed the causality of how you get the periodical listed. I stumbled into some of them very late, and it seriously held back some of the intended deductive tracks.

But, on the other hand, most of what you need can be approached from multiple angles. I was never in real danger of getting stuck.

I should also say something about the art. This is a mostly-solo project and the developer went whole-hog for AI-generated art. I give them a pass on that; the game needed a lot of portraits in specific styles on zero budget. And this was just before AI discourse got completely toxic. But everybody's a wee bit creepy-glossy all the way through, and I saw at least one classic AI hand-blob.

Also, the AI-generated art may possibly be misleading. The very first puzzle (the tutorial, so no big spoiler) is a photo of three young Roottrees; you get a clue that one has earrings and another is wearing plaid. Except, as Carl Muckenhoupt noticed, there is no plaid -- the shirt has black and red stripes.

Now, I absolutely zipped past that when I played. I saw black and red and thought "Yeah, that looks like your standard plaid flannel shirt." But it's not, and that's a very AI sort of mistake to make.

For what it's worth, most of the clue details in the photos (the earrings, for a start) seem to be photoshopped in on top of the AI art. So they're generally reliable. But if you have a keen eye -- which I obviously don't -- you may go off track.

That's a side note, though. It's a great solving experience, thoughtfully designed, with a lot of attention to period atmosphere through the family's generations. Highly recommended if you're into this sort of game.

Update: After writing the above, I learned that the author is working on remaking the game for a Steam release. ("Starting over from scratch", the author's words.) New hand-drawn art, revamped UI. See Steam page. Looks like they're already on top of the browser-history idea; yay.

I am delighted that this is happening. Roottrees is already a hit and it'll be worth the upgrade as a paid release. I admit that I'll miss the pseudo-photorealistic style -- that was one of the hallmarks of the game, uncanny-valley though it was -- but AI illustration is clearly not saleable to the game-playing audience at this point. Never mind the risk of visual inconsistencies. The new art on the Steam preview looks good. (Yes, it's got plaid.)