Eastshade: Fantasy Without Crisis

Eastshade is a game somewhere between a traditional CRPG and a walking simulator. You’re a painter, exploring an unfamiliar island in a game without combat or skill-based challenge. It is, very approximately, Skyrim without swords and monsters, a CRPG led by environmental design.

shadery

It goes a lot further than this, though. A lot of videogames struggle to do storytelling in a nonviolent or lower-violence way, because story is about conflict and violent conflict is relatively easy to simulate and show. (How much of that is the result of design history and how much comes with the territory, I’m not going to get into here.) Often they backslide somewhat – you just clubbed the guard from behind, it’s not like you shot him, there wasn’t a struggle. Some end up bringing along awkward assumptions from violence-driven mechanics – like in Renowned Explorers, where the consequences for failing a Friendly contest are the same as losing a Violent one.

Eastshade sets out to avoid this by largely eschewing high-stakes storytelling. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Recommendations

Voting in the IF Comp is concluded for this year, so before we get the actual results, here are the works of interactive fiction that I’d encourage people to play.

This year I didn’t really have a single clear favourite – there’s a whole bunch of games which I think are solid in many ways and exceptional in some, but nothing where I felt ‘this game is a big deal and it obviously ought to win.’  (I don’t have a strong sense of ‘this game is a solid crowd-pleaser and is obviously likely to win’, either.) I’m going to list my recommendations in order of how much of a sense of doom it is likely to impart to its audience.

Bogeyman: Childhood horror. It’s a lot to deal with – there’s some good content warnings, I highly recommend checking them out first – but it’s strongly-handled. Play if: you like it when horror isn’t shy about its analogies to real-world monstrosity. Doom rating: 9/10 indications of antemortem trauma.

Dead Man’s Fiesta: A careful balance of the funny and the existentially bleak. A Sad Feels Game about grieving and feeling inauthentic, with sparky enough writing to avoid a sense of navel-gazing. Play if: you’ve ever lost someone and didn’t get the emotions you felt you ought to. Doom rating: 7/10 futile attempts at catharsis.

silverSix Silver Bullets: You’re a spy with amnesia and everyone’s out to get you, probably. Cruel, paranoid, confusing, epic, dreamlike in a way that few games accomplish. You’ll have to wrestle the parser a little, and it’s rather bigger than a two-hour game. Play if: you’re willing to put in a lot of effort to unravel an ever-shifting mystery. Doom rating: 7/10 black lodges.

Devotionalia: Strong evocation of mood and atmosphere; well-suggested weird-fiction world, with strong overtones of Sunless Sea. I suggest headphones; it’s not a huge game but you won’t want to hurry it. Play if: you’ve ever loaded Sunless Sea just to sit on your boat and soak up the gloom. Doom rating: 6/10 uncaring snake gods, although this is despair that you’re expected to savour like a very small glass of very expensive wine.

The Master of the Land: Political intrigues, family drama and revolutionary rumblings in an early-C19th Ruritania. Some elements are a little rough, but it’s a complex world with a lot going on in it. Play if: you like big parties and you’re OK with not succeeding at every task you’re presented with. Doom rating: 5/10 panic attacks.

Animalia:  Dysfunctional team dynamics among woodland creatures piloting a facsimile of a ritually murdered child. Less grim than that sounds. Funny, ridiculous, lots of variation, occasionally macabre. Play if: you like plots about inept, squabbling people executing ludicrous plans. Doom rating: 3/10 changelings.

farm-harvest

Ürs: ‘It’s Watership Down but in the ruins of an ancient space civilization.’ Well, OK, it’s a whole lot less brutal than Watership Down, and has more mysterious-machine buttons to press. Gorgeous art – some of the best I’ve seen in any IF – lifts the whole thing. Play if: you’re the kind of jerk who bothers your friends and family by waving illustrated books at them and saying ‘just fucking look at this, it is fucking unreal how good this is.’ Doom rating: 2/10 extinction-level events.

Alias ‘The Magpie’: Farcical, trope-heavy jewel-theft caper in a country manor. Wear stupid disguises, spread chaos and destruction, snark at the decor. Play if: you’re in the mood for something silly and light-hearted and gently puzzly, but you’d also like to smash up a rich guy’s house. Doom rating: 0/10 dreadful bothers.

 

 

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IF Comp 2018: Alias ‘The Magpie’

magpieAlias ‘The Magpie’ is a parser comedy in which you’re a gentleman jewel thief who has infiltrated a country manor.

For some reason I was expecting a Wodehousian comedy; the time period feels about right for that, although the game carefully avoids leaving any definite clues about the date. It’s riffing on locked-room manor mysteries; the detective you’re impersonating is a ringer for Poirot. And this gag is so extremely Peter Wimsey that it almost feels like a lift:

“Ah! The brother of the countess. Interesting, I thought you would be younger.”

“Younger than what?”

“Younger than you are, Monsieur.”

“Odd thing to say. One can’t very well be younger than one is.”

But the cover art should be a clue here: overall the tone is much closer to the 60s, and in particular The Pink Panther. It’s goofy and slapstick, and spends a good amount of time poking fun at genre tropes – the library of its country house has been the scene of so many murders that the chalk outlines haven’t entirely faded. There is a good deal of absurd coincidence, arranged in ways which are quite satisfying. A lot of the fun is about how the protagonist is introduced as a suave, debonair mastermind who performs elegant, whisper-smooth, gentlemanly thefts, but the action involves causing an enormous amount of chaos and destruction and avoiding the blame for it only through sheer luck and the obtuseness of your marks, plus a lot of silly disguises.

Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Dead Man’s Fiesta

fiestaDead Man’s Fiesta is a choice-based story about grieving and angst and having a car haunted by crappy ghosts. It’s funny and sad, shortish but packs a lot in, and is one of the better-written games of this year’s Comp.

The protagonist is on compassionate leave after the death of a relative. Two relatives. Those people, their relationship with the protagonist, is not discussed much directly, but there are two urns, and the protagonist was the executor, so parents seem likely. The ghost is someone else’s father, so this is a kind of displacement, a way of talking about its particular themes without being centrally about exploring a particular parent-child relationship.

Its prevailing mood is one that’s common in bereavement and depression:

I wondered when the passionate display of raw emotion was going to happen

it hasn’t happened yet

This basic subject-matter, grief and pointlessness and a struggle to feel authentic emotions about them, could very easily have been the subject-matter of an extremely navel-gazey sadtwine. Fiesta is not that, which allows it to treat its feels with more depth and nuance. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Bullhockey!

bullhockBullhockey! is a puzzly scavenger-hunt game. It’s considerably long – longer than anyone is likely to finish in the judging period without heavy use of the walkthrough. The protagonist wakes up to find that his girlfriend has left him, his apartment has been trashed and all his work clothes are gone, so he goes on a scavenger hunt to retrieve his clothes.

It is awkward. It’s got awkward prose, it has an awkwardly-designed map, and it has an awkward premise. Once you leave the house it sprawls, with very little direction. Its characters behave and react in ways that don’t make sense. The tone might have been intended as weird/surreal fiction, or as ridiculous comedy – and there are hints of both, but it doesn’t really commit to either. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018 mini-reviews, pt. 3

More capsule reviews of games that I don’t have a full review for: Awake, HMS Spaceman, Instruction Set, I Should Have Been That I Am, Nightmare Adventure, Space Punk Moon Tour and The Stone of Wisdom.

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IF Comp 2018: Polish the Glass

polishglassPolish the Glass is a choice-based horror piece, almost entirely linear, about growing up under a family curse and being unable to escape it yourself.

This is a piece which gets narrative flow, and which is thinking about text presentation. It’s not astonishing text formatting, but care and thought and taste has been put into it, and that goes a long way. And it understands that when you’re delivering long chunks of linear narrative you’ve got to be thinking about the pacing of that text. I’ve played a lot of games this comp where the author plainly hasn’t really given any thought to how pleasant or easy their game is to read, so this is comes as a big relief. Continue reading

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