IF Comp ’16: Labyrinth of Loci

Labyrinth of Loci (anbrewk, Unity) is a choice-based dungeon-crawl, with atmospheric music and art design. It appears to be incomplete or buggy: my first two playthroughs both ended after a pretty short time with a big white rectangle in the middle of the screen and no further options. I can’t tell if this is a bug that only I’m getting for some reason, or if it’s just that the author left a lot of unfinished branches; at a quick glance I’m not sure if anybody else has reviewed this yet. On a reluctant third attempt I made it to an ending.

lociAnyway. Despite the blurb, the game doesn’t clearly seem to be either memory palace or memory labyrinth; rather, it’s a genre fantasy piece minus the combat. You’re in an underground… dungeon is probably the better word, because a labyrinth must be navigated, and navigation isn’t important here. (It’s also not a labyrinth in the specialist labyrinth vs. maze sense, because that wouldn’t involve choices.) At each point, you have a choice of two doors leading to different rooms; there isn’t much to choose between them beyond aesthetics. Each leads to a room; on leaving the room, you get another two doors.

Depending on character-creation choices, you’ll have a set of three skills/traits/whatever which can be used to overcome stuff. Compared to your average heroic-fantasy dungeon, this is a pretty downbeat, chill place: this is not really a story about slaying things, but more about gloomy atmosphere and ancient lore. It feels fairly similar to Chris Gardiner’s Belowminus the Saxon flavour. This is more of a standard-issue fantasy setting, albeit one focused on dark ancient capital-L Lore: there are demons, fairies, ancient forgotten gods, runic inscriptions, and so forth.

To quote the blurb:

This game attempts to create a sense of lore, of place, of journey for an undetermined character. By the end of a single playthrough, the player ought to feel that they made choices, that they felt something for the person they were playing, and, hopefully, that their character was theirs and not mine. There are many paths and many endings, though only one labyrinth.

This isn’t great as a blurb, but it’s a well-articulated set of design goals. But if I had played the game cold and had to guess what the author’s objectives were, I would absolutely not have said that these were the priorities. I’d have said that the author was going for a dark, sinister atmosphere, a sense of looming ancient mystery – I guess that’s what’s intended by lore in this case – and a kind of Fighting Fantasy vibe of random encounters with untrustworthy adversaries and second-guessing. This isn’t a narrative that’s very focused on the protagonist; and while it does a decent job of evoking the flavour of fantasy that it’s aiming at, it doesn’t ever quite get to the point where it felt like its own thing.

To grab something in particular out of there – the hope that the character was theirs and not mine – I think that this did a not-great job. Getting people to invest in / identify with / feel ownership of their characters is a big and fiddly subject, but Labyrinth has some design choices which definitely don’t help.

First of all, character-creation is made up of binary choices. In general, if you want to prioritise the player’s sense of investment in and ownership of characters, binary choices are a big problem, particularly during character-creation. Being shoved into a binary choice really tends to make people feel that this is a dichotomy framed by someone else, and makes them more conscious that they don’t get to dispute the terms. Of course, they still don’t get to define the terms if you offer them three or four or twenty options, but two choices really drives that home, quite apart from the fact that it makes it less likely that they’ll find an option they like.

Second, a lot of these choices are made without a lot of context. It’s hard to feel attachment to a choice if you make it without having much of a sense of its significance. A lot of CRPGs delay character-creation until after an intro sequence, giving time for the player to get a handle on the world and their place within it before they start defining their character. Choice of Games pieces almost always start out in the middle of the action before slowing down and introducing the character-sheet questions.

And while Labyrinth is obviously set in a pretty standard high-fantasy world, we don’t really know at the outset what the choices mean. The author understands the significance of demons vs. fairies, or forgotten gods vs. old words, but to the player, being offered this choice just underlines that the author knows lots of stuff about this world and we don’t, that we’re strangers in the author’s world. Anyway: the upshot of this was that I didn’t ever really get much of a sense of character, just of the character traits being keys which allowed me to unlock different options on different playthroughs.

Your stories were of your descendents. Of whom are you descended?

OK, that doesn’t make sense. Descendants are your children and their children and so on, not your parents and theirs. Either this should be ‘your stories were of your ascendants’, although ‘ancestors’ would be less awkward, or ‘your stories were of your descent.’ And ‘of whom are you descended’ is… technically OK, but arrestingly formal, so much so that it made me do a double-take to check if it was right. This is something of a pattern: use of language that’s slightly over-formal and at times slightly wrong.

Text doesn’t appear all at once, but progressively fades in. I am generally Not A Fan of this, and it took me a little while to figure out that you can make it skip to the complete text by clicking but only on the Continue button. But that’s not really the annoying thing about it: it’s that after all the text has appeared, you have to click the Continue button again for no reason before you get a choice. This is unnecessarily awkward.

If I had quit after the first couple of broken playthroughs, this would be getting a score of 1 or 2. As it was, I never got to the point where I started knitting the scraps of information I was getting into some kind of coherent picture; I just got the sense of Random Dark Fantasy Stuff. This isn’t to say that the author doesn’t have a unifying vision for things, or that this isn’t present in the work; but I didn’t end up extracting it even on the third playthrough, in part because I didn’t have confidence that I was going to get a complete thing. So this is probably around a 3.

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One Response to IF Comp ’16: Labyrinth of Loci

  1. Pingback: This might not be the place | How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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