Tea Ceremony (Naomi Hinchen) is a parser-based science fiction game. As a junior and not-particularly-capable diplomat, you’ve been tasked with making nice with an alien who has some minor pull in a trade deal, but she’s of a species and caste which place a very high value on correct etiquette, so you’re going to have to figure out what that means.
This is a small piece, with low ambitions neatly executed; it feels very much like a conscientious first game. It has some very simple puzzles. The writing is straightforward, leavened with humour in the vein of Douglas Adams except rather less dark.
The premise seems as though you’re going to be mostly interacting with the alien, but in fact most of the game requires you to ignore her. Instead, you walk around, choosing outfits, looking up things in books, and doing simple measuring-cup puzzles to make the alien version of tea and biscuits. None of it was very challenging – particularly once I realised that the teacups had a volume of 1.
A lot of things here suggested that the game’s humour was planned to be about amusing failures of translation, with the miscommunications slowly giving you more information about what the correct approach might be, or perhaps an NPC-harangue comedy like A Day For Fresh Sushi.
The alien etiquette is not really an opening for an exploration of a fictional culture (in which ‘alien’ is basically a stand-in for unfamiliar human culture) nor a Solaris-type musing on how aliens are unfathomably unlike humans. Rather, the alien is basically a Wodehousian Aunt or Dowager Duchess type character, and her alien status serves two quite functional roles. It explains why she’s not more responsive as an NPC (why, for instance, she doesn’t object to the diplomatic meeting being put on hold while her opposite number rummages around in her rooms). It also justifies the player’s initial lack of knowledge – the game feels as though you’re a butler serving tea to a looming Aunt, but in that world the butler should know how everything works.
The narrative elements are pretty unassuming, too: all we ever know about the PC is that they’re a second-rate junior diplomat, the alien and the broader setting are never filled out in any depth, the story never goes anywhere unexpected.
So, a decent first effort, as far as it goes: it plays fairly smoothly, it never gets frustrating, it’s always pretty clear what’s going on and what your motivation is. But there’s not really anything to get excited about. If you’re making a game, this is something you need to be able to answer: what do you see your readers getting fired up about? What are the Cool Things, the apex experiences, the one thing which will make your player’s eyes light up as they describe your game to a friend? There are games where I can see what that’s meant to be, even if it isn’t my thing; I couldn’t really see that here.