Spring Thing: Surface

Surface, by Geoff Moore, is the sole Twine entry in Spring Thing. I will be including spoilers for it.

Surface is told from two perspectives: an alien struggling to survive in an Earth environment, and a middle-aged man coping poorly with the aftermath of what I initially supposed to be a divorce, but later seems to be more probably the death of his wife.

The alien sections bear an obvious link to Coloratura and a certain family resemblance to some of the more body-horrorish Twine pieces. The aliens are of the bioengineery sort – their ship is a literal mother-ship, and they’re highly mutable, taking on qualities of creatures they eat. The question of what to eat, and what to consume yourself rather than feeding to your sister Tal, forms the central puzzle sequence of the game.

This looks like a species of Katamari Damacy eat-to-grow puzzle – an approach that was also explored in IF by Mangiasaur and, perhaps more pertinently, Changes. The first time around, I made some straightforwardly-dumb, lawnmowery choices, and found myself in a position where – at least apparently – I couldn’t defeat anything. (If so, it’d have been nice if the game had recognised that failure so that I didn’t waste time flailing around.) On a second play, I got through things much more efficiently. This puzzle struck me as a not-wholly-successful attempt to make a refinement on the eat-to-grow puzzle by combining it, more or less, with the whom-to-feed choice from Walking Dead S1E2 – or perhaps that it was conceived as such, but then cut down to something less sandboxy that served the needs of a single-outcome story.

The Twine layout is attractively customised, with strong and simple use of background colours and simple, evocative rather than literal art. The point at which the art became most literal, most mechanically useful (during the main section of aforementioned eat-to-grow sequence) was also the point at which it felt least visually effective, but I think that’s an unavoidable trade-off.

The story itself felt… oddly retro, like a short SF first-contact story from the classic Clarke-Asimov era. It’s very straightforward: as soon as the narrative switches from alien to man, you know that the two will encounter one another and somehow understand one another’s pain. (Since it’s a Twine story that opens with goopy aliens being sad, I suppose I had anticipated something with a darker, more emotionally messy arc.) I ultimately felt as though the ending I got was a little too convenient, a little too Androcles-and-the-lion; that the themes of death and grief were only introduced rather than explored.

In short, a respectable, well-put-together, competent piece, without any glaring flaws that I can point to; with Bear Creek, it unambiguously has the best prose quality of the comp, and it is full of the kind of small, inobtrusive tweaks and affordances that make a game smoother. It is solid work. And yet it didn’t strike any sparks; there wasn’t anything in it that excited or deeply engaged me, either in gameplay or story; I was looking for something to be taken up a level. Right now, if I had to summarise it in a ‘that game with the X’ manner, X would be effective background art. Which is kind of like a movie that only wins awards for lighting – movie lighting is a vital and complicated art, but rarely can it form the central point of interest.

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