One of the key things that videogame stories offer is approval. To some extent all media does this; but in videogames player identification with protagonists is a lot stronger, and more active participation is required – and needs to be motivated. As a result, the kinds of approval on offer in videogames are often much more blatant in their delivery.
I’ve written before about this, mostly with respect to masculine power-fantasy. The power-fantasy hero is strong, taciturn, highly competent, deeply serious, reliant on nobody. He is emotionally inexpressive: when the stoic mask drops, it’s mostly to express anger or (more often) contempt. He can be loved for doing good or feared for doing evil, but this is less important than the fact that he’s shown as having the power to choose, and to do it on his own terms. But none of his choices carry weight, because none of them can change him. He can slaughter thousands without the hecatomb ever affecting his feelings.
People in indie games talk a lot about diametric alternatives to the status quo, so you hear a lot of discussion about the opposite of gun-butch, individualist-mastery power fantasy: games about interpersonal dynamics, femme-coded activities and aesthetics, tend-and-befriend, and so on. A recurring theme is games about care, community, intimacy, therapy. Which is all to the good! But these aren’t novel or unexplored spaces in games, for all that they’re more prominent in hobbyist and indie works than in headline-grabbing AAA. And, just like power-fantasy, they’re themes that exist to feed particular urges, to the point where the primacy of the urge often distorts the world around it.
I keep meaning to do this every comp, and then leave it too late and get self-conscious about self-indulgent overreading. But, look, I think naming is really important in writing. Outside of poetry, there are few places where the choice of a single word has so much potential to imply stuff, and… OK, I’m not going to justify this, I just really enjoy doing it.
Anyway. Here are a bunch of character names from the 2017 IF Comp that I found striking, but which would have been a huge boondoggle to talk about in the actual review; and what I read into them. I make no apologies.
Bird (10pm). Birds are delicate, gracile, frail. When you call someone birdlike, you tend to imply being small and fragile. Applied to a twelve-year-old boy, one pictures something like those two boys who look confusingly similar in Stranger Things. It suggests childhood as a time of acute vulnerability, emotional as well as physical; there’s some sense of the trope of childhood as inherently feminine. Bird talks about feeling imprisoned, so there’s an element of bird/cage at work here as well.
Voting is closed in the 2017 IF Comp. I made it through all of the top-tier games in my triage system and had time for a scattering of assorted pieces after that; I haven’t played anywhere near every one of the 79 games, but I’ve had time to at least glance over most of the ones that piqued my interest. Here are my favourite games of the comp:
Set in a New England women’s college, Harmonia is a beautifully-presented story about utopias and their shortcomings; and also about textuality, viewpoints, what can be drawn from texts and what can’t. Liza Daly has been pushing the envelope on IF presentation ever since First Draft of the Revolution, and this is a substantial step forwards on that front. Very few IF works make me downright avaricious with their layout, but this has jumped straight to the top of that list.
Tuuli is a short, punchy game about a novice Finnic witch who’s obliged to step into her mentor’s shoes to protect her village from Viking raiders. At least part of my enjoyment was due to its subject-matter hitting a lot of my buttons, but it accomplishes a great deal in a small space. (cw: its magic rituals involve self-harm).
Will Not Let Me Go is a highly polished, acutely observed piece about old age, dementia and death, deftly using interaction to signify the protagonist’s disorientation and frustration. It’s heavy going, but manages to strike bittersweet notes on a subject that’s prima facie grounds for despair. (Disclaimer: I tested this game.)
Eat Me is a visceral, vision-of-hell horror piece underlaid by really solid design; if you like the macabre worlds and powerfully lurid prose of Chandler Groover’s previous work, it’s like two of those that are somehow occupying the same space. It comes with a lot of health warnings – squicky, grotesque horror with a palpable (if not necessarily intentional) flavour of kink, and I’d counsel caution if you have any kind of Issues around food.
Measureless to Man (Ivan R) is an Inform game. It’s aiming for a weird-fiction / Lovecraftian horror kind of vibe: a doomed protagonist slouches towards an ominous fate for reasons which never become entirely clear.
It’s a plot which is basically ‘weird spooky otherworldly shit happens for no clear reason’, which… can be made to work, but it relies on a much stronger sense of atmosphere, pacing and purpose than this manages. Continue reading
Insignificant Little Vermin (Filip Hracek) is a heroic-fantasy dungeon-crawl; the protagonist is an escaped slave in an orcish stronghold, and must fight their way out while doing as much damage as possible.
There are illustrations. These are at their strongest when showing posed figures and details of weapons, less confident when it comes to action scenes, and largely ignore setting.
It’s made in a custom choice-based system, designed with mobile devices in mind and centred around combat. There is a simple randomisation system, presented as a five-reel slot machine. I’ll be up-front: this is a game with a heavy focus on combat that is not very good at fight scenes, either in terms of writing or choice. Continue reading
In Harbinger (Kenna May, Twine) you play a talking crow on the run from an unleashed evil; initially isolated, you team up with a witch and her apprentice to deal with the apocalyptic threat. (Gosh, but this is a witchy comp.)
My general feeling about it was that it was fine. I’m not mad at it. It doesn’t commit any glaring errors – the main visible thing that I’d fix is that it could use an edit to catch a sprinkling of spelling mistakes. It tells a story that’s clear and decently-paced; it uses interactivity in a way that’s light but significant. But it doesn’t really shine at any particular thing. Continue reading
ME (regarding game list): I… guess I’d better play the vore game.
CHORUS: Lord-a-mercy but that vore game is A Lot.
ME: Yes. Yes it most certainly is.
Eat Me (Chandler Groover) is a limited-parser Inform game. The main verb of action is EAT. You are a child-prisoner in the dungeons of a castle of food. In the castle, everyone is made of food and fixated upon producing or consuming it; you are no exception. With a bottomless pit in your stomach, you have to figure out how to eat everything that isn’t nailed down. (No relation to Eat Me, the lesbians-made-of-food smut comic by Megan Rose Gedris.)
It is mildly puzzly, albeit with minimal inventory and very few verbs. Puzzles are generally straightforward but non-trivial, with a lot of emphasis on relative position on the map. The castle itself is torn apart in places as you go along; the ground is rarely stable under your feet. Underneath the stylistic shell, it’s an orderly parser puzzle structure, with some light gating and an emphasis on sequences of actions rather than verbs or inventory – close to a point-and-click adventure. But the structure is, uh, very much not the most prominent feature here; it’s highly capable, but inconspicuous. The rest of the game, by contrast, is horror of the unrepentantly gratuitous school.