Heart’s Medicine: Time to Heal

Title screen of the game.It’s commonplace for a time-management game to feature character-driven plot, but Time to Heal sells itself really hard on narrative. The intro frames it as an original story. The game’s bumf is really focused on storytelling (and, in particular, that most irritating qualifier of Legitimate Narrative, ‘it made me cry’.) The plot opens in media res, in a flash-forward to the mid-game climax. Part of its gloss is an original soundtrack – melancholy singer-songwriter guitar stuff, pitch-perfect for the kind of heartache-by-the-numbers drama it’s aiming for.

The typical plot arc of time-management games, post Diner Dash, is straightforward Horatio Alger: a plucky protagonist grows their humble store into a business empire. Time to Heal aspires to combine this arc with a medical drama show; rather than growing a business, its heroine Allison Heart is building a career.

There are two things that drive a standard TV medical drama. One is the inherently high, emotionally-charged stakes: life, death, fertility, fear, suffering, the drowned and the saved; people at their most vulnerable and broken, on some of the worst (and occasionally best) days of their lives. The other thing is attachment to an ensemble cast, a surrogate family: this succeeds when the audience likes the regular cast, gets the sense of a circle of close friends, and feels included in it.

Heart’s Medicine knows this. It knows that these are emotional notes it has to hit. It devotes a lot of energy to them, and it doesn’t really succeed – and this is entirely due to the sheer weight of constraints it’s under. Continue reading

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Colonial Reform

Two similar games came out at about the same time in 2015. Both involve a Conan Doyle or Verne-style exploration contest between members of a clubbish Royal Society-like organisation; you assemble a small team of adventurers and go on a series of expeditions to exotic lands in search of fame, knowledge and treasures, managing resources, leveling up characters and making strategic decisions about your route. Both locate themselves relative to real-world geography to some extent; both feel as though they’re set vaguely around the Victorian era, though they tend to extend that period to end around WWII.

They came in the wake of the success of 80 Days, though I’m not sure if this was a direct influence or just a matter of convergent zeitgeist. And both, in different ways, made some steps towards addressing the colonialism of the genre… though neither, ultimately, to as satisfactory an extent as 80 Days did.

Despite similar premises, these are games with somewhat different intended audiences. The Curious Expedition is rendered in the indie-game uniform of pixel art; its map is laid out in nerd-friendly hexes with variable terrain movement costs. At a casual first glance, it could have sprung out of the early ’90s.

A partially-discovered hex map, from Curious Expedition.

Renowned Explorers: International Society is pitched as more casual or kid-friendly; it feels like a game you’d play on a tablet. Its crisp, clean graphic style and dynamic, cheerful player characters suggest a children’s cartoon, and its node-based map presents a more immediately-accessible interface to an audience not accustomed to hex maps.

Node-based map of a tropical island, from Renowned Explorers.

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Human Intelligence

209666At this year’s Go Play I ran a couple of games on behalf of their designers. One was procedurally fiddly, thematically serious, and a beta that had never been run by anyone but its designer before. The other was light-hearted, mechanically simple, and was already published and available from DriveThruRPG. I was bracing myself for the possibility that I’d fail, hard, at the former, and expecting the latter to be a breeze. The latter was Emma Lloyd’s Human Intelligence.

HI is billed as a ridiculous, quick-to-play comedy. All the PCs are aliens who, unbeknownst to one another, have infiltrated the same human planetary-exploration mission. You are woefully unprepared for espionage, but since everybody on the mission is a secret alien with a hazy idea of what constitutes normal human behaviour, you might be able to get away with it. Continue reading

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Inheritance

Every year at Go Play NW you get a sense of certain games that are the New Hotness, recently-released or newly-rediscovered games that get played a whole bunch and come up in almost every conversation. This year Luke Crane’s Viking LARP Inheritance was pretty high on the list, right by that one about the mecha pilots who spend all their time flirting at parties. I highly recommend playing it if you get the chance, although I don’t think that new copies are presently available; regardless, I’ll try to avoid strong spoilers in the review itself. (No promises about the comments.)

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Inheritance is a smallish-scale one-shot LARP; it’s made for nine players and a facilitator, is playable in about 3 hours, and – crucially – works totally fine as a pick-up game. (Usually I miss out on the LARPs at Go Play due to a chronic failure to plan ahead, so this was much-appreciated.) This size turns out to be a very sweet spot: a group small enough that you can quickly figure out who everybody is, but large enough to have several separate conversations going on at once, always give you another conversation you need to be having, allow for some fairly tangled intrigues.

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T.I.M.E. Stories

T.I.M.E. Stories is an adventure game in glossy board game packaging.

timestories_Like Pandemic Legacy, it’s a one-shot board game, near-pointless to replay once you’ve won; you’re engaged in investigation, uncovering fixed, scripted information. (Unlike Pandemic Legacy, the process of play doesn’t irreversibly alter the game pieces; you could trade it on afterwards). There are expansions using the same rule-set but with different settings, characters and stories, so potentially it’s a narrative game platform as much as anything. The box cover is mostly white space, emphasising the potential for varied future stories rather than any one story in particular. Continue reading

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Apocalypse Fuel, and early thoughts on Vorple

altcoverApocalypse Fuel, my Apocalypse World gang generator, is up to version 9 now. I’ve steadily been adding content to the thing for a while, but the additions between 8 and 9 are relatively modest.  The big difference is that it now uses Vorple, which makes it a lot more web-friendly. Which is a non-trivial deal for a thing that people might, for instance, be referring to on phones in the middle of a tabletop game.

Juhana Leinonen’s brainchild Vorple has been around for a while, but until recently it only worked for Undum (an attractive but notoriously awkward system that was briefly very exciting before Twine became a thing), and the relatively small games that Inform 7 can fit into the z-code format. But it’s now compatible with the much less limited Glulx, which – OK, it’s difficult to really express what a big fucking deal this is, especially if you want to avoid constructions like ‘holy grail of.’ But the short of it is that it enables a relatively casual coder (like yours truly) to genuinely combine the power and sophistication of Inform 7 with the standard web-dev tools of HTML, CSS and Javascript.

Apocalypse Fuel was an obvious choice to try Vorple out on, because it doesn’t gain anything from parser input; I just made it in I7 because I know I7 and it’s really good at text manipulation. Its control scheme is just a limited set of buttons to push; they still get translated into commands and passed through the Inform action sequence, but that’s all hidden from the user.

Vorple isn’t perfect. It has to be run from a server – when you’re testing you have to set up a local host, which isn’t all that onerous but is an extra step. This has a couple of effects: one, it breaks up the I7 IDE a bit, so you’re always switching back and forth between your Inform code, a browser, and maybe a text editor for your stylesheets. Two, it makes it awkward for players to download your game and play offline, which I maintain is pretty damn important (however many developers would prefer that it wasn’t). In theory you can code a game so that it works both with and without Vorple, but in practice this was a step I only used to make my testing easier. (If you’re keeping the parser, this would be a much smaller concern).

The other thing, of course, is that Vorple’s ability to make things pretty is limited by your own ability to use CSS (I am learning). My hope is that in the coming months and years we’ll see some plug-and-play templates for different presentations and kinds of game.  (If I get capable enough I’ll try to make some.) Twine suggests that, yeah, it’s nice to have a lot of control over presentation, but most people are still going to want to use something off the peg.

That said, from my brief time with it, I’m extremely happy with Vorple; I expect to use it for basically every new IF project for the forseeable future, and I’m thinking about converting a number of old ones.

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Cannonfire Concerto

promo480Cannonfire Concerto (Caleb Wilson) is a Choicescript fantasy piece about intrigue, music and war. It’s very good; if you’re mostly interested in the more writerly end of the Choicescript oeuvre, in courtly intrigue or in evocative worldbuilding fantasy, I thoroughly recommend it.

Its protagonist is a talented string player, engaged on a music tour through lightly-reskinned versions of eighteenth-century European states. Storm-clouds are gathering; a Napoleon analogue threatens to bring all analogue-Europe under his boot, a Russia analogue is his only serious opposition, and a lot of minor powers are jockeying for influence amid the turmoil. Courted by various factions, the player’s personal and professional life is inescapably tangled up with politics.

Certain people in this world are inhabited by Genius, a supernatural quality that involves a potential for great talent in some field. Genius is kind of like a psychic aura, recognising and interfering with the Genius of others, and slightly like a separate entity with its own wants and needs. Many, though not all, of the key players in politics have an apropos Genius: this isn’t quite as big a deal as in, say, the comic Girl Genius, where the strength of nations is primarily determined by the strength of their leader’s Spark, but this is definitely a world more driven by Great Man History than our own. Continue reading

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