Continuing Spring Thing: Weekend at Ruby’s is a Quest game by Liam Butler and Jackson Palmer. Spoilers.
The opening of Weekend at Ruby’s asks for your name, gender, age, sexual orientation and sex/booze/drugs limits, then throws out the results:
Good for you. Now you can forget about every answer you typed in because in this game, you are Joe, a 25 year old straight male who, while neither slut nor junkie, has absolutely no objections to anything on that list.
So, I assume that this was intended as a small joke – a riff on a common game trope, more than anything – but it rubbed me the wrong way.
In principle, I really, really don’t have a problem with games that don’t allow the player strong control over definition of the player character. All else being equal, when games are focused on single-player kinds of interaction, I actively prefer that they don’t offer this kind of choice, because it allows authors to craft vastly richer, more memorable characters with personalities more deeply tied to the story.
The problem with this is that in practice, you end up with protagonists that are 90% male and 85% white, disproportionately¹ straight, able-bodied young adults, and so on. This is obviously shit, and until it gets fixed player-chosen definitional qualities are kind of a big fucking deal. That doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong by making a game about a straight white cis young man – that covers me, more or less, and I’ve no intention of forbidding myself from making games about myself – but if you’re going to do so, maybe don’t pull a bait-and-switch over character definition choices, yeah?
(I have, now that I think of it, done something very similar myself – but in that case, the point was that the perspective character is previously established, and established as a clueless, self-centred douchebag.)
Anyway. Here endeth the lesson. On to the game.
This is the second game this comp in which a girl called Alison has appeared and rapidly been declared the love of my life. (The only associations I have with the name are ‘my dead aunt’ and ‘the adulterous wife from the Miller’s Tale who arguably receives the first rimjob in literature’, which is some mixed-message stuff, but evidently the rest of the world thinks of it as Cute Young Blonde.)
All the clichés in the world suddenly make sense to you, every time you hear someone describe their partner as the kindest, funniest, sexiest person ever you scoff at the lack of effort they’ve put in to cover up the fact they’ve settled for someone who’s not perfect. But Alison is all these things and more, you feel so completely at ease when talking to her while at the same time your body tingles with nervous excitement to just be around her. You talk for what feels like hours although in reality only 10 minutes go by.
Oh god, I’m caught in a generic romance.
Look, if a meet-cute is going to serve as the central motivation for what follows, show us the meet-cute. To get your audience invested in a romance, you have to let them know specifics about the characters in question and the way they interact. How exactly you go about doing this is a secondary issue – but if the player isn’t shipping your romantic leads at least a little bit, your motivation dies. Going meta won’t help here. Go for detail.
Initial appearances aside, though, I’m not sure that this really is the central motivation for the game, because what follows is a lengthy sequence of overlapping and largely unrelated incidents, mostly just to do with mingling at the party and seeing what changes.
I don’t think that IF necessarily needs a strong central narrative. There are a number of games in which pottering around and experiencing stuff, rather than driving the plot forwards, solving puzzles and winning the game, are the central motivations. It’d be cool to see more games that are unapologetically experiential setting-driven things, taking cues from diorama or interactive theatre. I’d play the hell out of a big detailed you-just-goof-around-getting-squiffy-at-a-party game by Robb Sherwin or Chris Huang or Jenni Polodna or the Eurydice author. Or Ryan Veeder, if I thought Ryan Veeder could write that game without making all the guests incredibly awful people and then setting the house on fire.
Weekend at Ruby’s is kind of in this vein: it’s got a big cast, and a lot of small side-treks and incidents that have nothing to do with its purported main objective and everything to do with being blokey and getting shit-faced. The authors pitch it as an open-world game, which I think is, possibly, an idiom that has misled them a little: that word brings to mind worlds with a vast map, along the lines of Minecraft or Skyrim, and I suspect that thinking in this mode caused Weekend‘s map to grow bigger than really necessary for its content.
More broadly: open-world games work when you can always find something to be doing. Ruby’s takes a CRPG-ish attitude of throwing miniquests at you left and right, in theory so that you generally have a good-sized to-do list and can pick which part of it you want to work on. In practice, I found that this mostly gave me too much space to wander aimlessly around in when I got stuck.
Basically, I think that there are two intended experiences here: the feeling of a drunken party with lots of friends and random shit happening, and a trad-IFish game about searching for stuff in a big map and solving puzzles and things. These are kind of differently paced activities, and their needs are kind of at odds with one another. For instance, in the drunken-party game you probably want a somewhat smaller map – big enough that there can be different things happening in different places, but small enough that there can be something cool happening in most of them, most of the time. For the big-map puzzle-hunt you want a bigger map, but with more exciting scenery so that the player stays interested in poking around at it; for the drunken-party game scenery’s less important than characters. And so on.
This is not an impossible balancing act, I think, but it feels to me as though Weekend hasn’t quite hit the ideal point. The puzzles, for instance, aren’t super-interesting as puzzles – they’re all obviously crafted around individual ideas about things that might happen in this setting, and none of them are going to make puzzleheads rub their hands in glee. But at the same time, their solitary nature and slowdown effect on pacing feels a little ill-at-ease with the setting. It’s tough, I think, to marry the loneliness of the adventure-game protagonist with the deeply social nature of a party – usually, if there’s a party in IF, there’s something important that makes the PC somehow an outsider. In Cana According to Micah and The Statue Got Me High you’re staff, able to interact with guests only at a certain social remove; in the New Year’s Eve party in Heroine’s Mantle and in Pytho’s Mask you have bigger priorities than mingling; in Party Foul you just don’t want to be there. Joe wants to be at this party for the sake of the party, which is a much a tougher experience to render in a game, so failing to get it totally right is not that shabby.
OK, since this is a moderately puzzly game, and entered into a comp, player aids are important. Weekend has put some solid effort into this; there’s a hint menu, for instance, but it wasn’t enough to get me through the whole game. At least one of the menus throws up a bug that stops it giving any information, but mostly they don’t work by design – they’re very much hints rather than solutions, with big gaps in the information provided. Also, access to them is restricted by a points system. So,
There are also in-game maps. This is a useful convenience for a game that covers a pretty large area, but I think this might be an exception to my usual principle that game materials should be accessible within the game wherever possible: the way that maps generally work is that you want to consult them as you travel, glancing back at the map regularly to confirm what the next step is. This is easy if the map’s a separate file – leave it open and tab through to it, or leave it up if you’ve got enough screen real estate – but accessing it in-game is a bit more awkward. It might be easier if you didn’t have to go through a menu to choose your map every time, but even so they’re going to keep scrolling away.
That covers the big points, I think. On to minor issues:
You peer into the fridge and are outraged to find that two of your beers have gone missing! You’d been hoping someone would notice that you were drinking a “Game Of Thrones” brand beer so you could graciously share it and have a talking point with them
Okay, okay, a talking point, gotcha, I’ve got something for this:
Which, admittedly, was about the Take the Black Stout, which is an actual GoT-licensed product, while the game’s is Lannister Gold, which is a fictional brand created for T-shirt purposes by some graphic design guy. See! CONVERSATION STARTER.
Secondly, c’mon, man, you left some beers in the fridge at a party and now you’re throwing a mard because someone else drank them? Party foul. If you’re saving the beers for a special moment, don’t put them in an up-for-grabs zone. Hide ’em somewhere, then you can get pissed off when some shitty little rat half-inches them, oh right just like you and your buddies are busily doing. Or else hover by the public booze, poised to conversation-pounce anyone who so much as glances at your cool beers, like that one guy who brought homebrew does, hem-hem.
A longstanding gripe:
> ask levi about foosball
Ask and tell are not required in this game. You can use TALK TO [PERSON] or TALK TO [PERSON] ABOUT [TOPIC]. Please read the special commands section of the help file for more details.
Look, if you’ve recognised what I’m trying to do, why don’t you go ahead and make both phrasings work? If the verb’s function represents a functionally different operation, like TALK TO X vs. ASK X ABOUT Y, that’s one thing; but if they’re different ways of saying the same thing, make them both work. Similarly:
> get beer
You do have some beers in the fridge but you’ll have to open it to get at them.
Is there any possible reason why the player’s next action wouldn’t be OPEN FRIDGE? No? Then be polite, open the fridge and get them a beer. Don’t insist that they jump through hoops when those hoops aren’t necessary for them to be understood.
Also, I dunno if this is just using the defaults of the downloaded Quest runner, but Quest is kind of kicking ass at attractive, clean, grown-up-looking typography right now.
Overall, Weekend is neither a standout work of literature nor a brilliant puzzlebox, but it’s still encouraging as a first game; a lot of its failings are to do with overambition, and it’d be pretty agreeable if not for its scattered but regular bursts of adolescent dickishness. Honestly, that kind of sums up my take on this – I’d have enjoyed this game about dumb-ass adolescents if it had taken a little bit more of a mature approach.
¹ Proportionality’s just a heuristic, really – I don’t know that everything would be cool if it was fixed. (There are plenty of minorities for whom proportional representation in games might still mean that they never saw a game with a protagonist like them.) But it’d be one hell of a start.