IF Comp 2017: The Traveller

travellerThe Traveller (Kaelan Doyle Myerscough) is an visual novel about space exploration, alien contact and loneliness.

The story is highly Odyssey-influenced, to the point where it might be readable as a very loose retelling: the protagonist is a lost wanderer trying to find home in the wake of a war, washing up in strange worlds and interacting with their strange inhabitants. But for all that its protagonist is a warrior, this is not really a piece about heroics; mostly it’s about cultural contact, intimacy with aliens, and time and distance.

The Odysseus recasting is largely in the protagonist’s favour. Rather than returning from a war of reprisal, she’s a refugee from a conflict-ridden Earth. Penelope is their child rather than their spouse. Where Odysseus encounters a great many beings who want to wreck his shit, the Traveller mostly encounters aliens who are friendly, considerate and generous (not to mention very human-like mentally). This is not an Odysseus who’s notably cunning or daring; this is the long-suffering Odysseus, the guy who waits and endures.

And I honestly kind of got bored with this, because the protagonist is just not all that interesting. VN protagonists tend to be pretty bland people; you see through their eyes but only occasionally direct their actions, and there’s a tendency to keep them low-level AFGNCAAPish to keep the player identifying with them. Here that’s augmented by a fish-out-of-water element which stops us from seeing a lot of the character: so, for instance, she’s a leader, but most of what we see in this is in the quickly-delivered intro sequence; the bulk of the game is about being on someone else’s turf without any of your own people, with aliens taking most of the initiative.

Visual novels tend to have a rhythm very different from typical choice-based games in the IF space: a very slow pace, spending lots of time on first-person moment-to-moment descriptions of routine actions, idle thoughts and meandering conversations, and with very long intervals between choices. There’s a specific VN narrative voice, too, more specific than just first-person would suggest: a sort of consciously everyman delivery, present-tense yet somewhat detached from it, inclined to navel-gazing and to (this is the part I dislike most) ellipsis.

A lot of it’s a side-effect of the form: VN illustration isn’t well-suited for showing action of any sort, which leads to stories that are mostly about conversations (and staring into space when you’re not talking to anyone). VNs are premised on recycling images heavily in order to get a relatively long play experience, which means there’s not much incentive to edit any given section for length. In most media, all this would seem like padding; and at least in the West, VN-like things in the professional space tend to be snappier and more tightly edited. All this is to say that I understand the context that The Traveller‘s pacing comes from, but that doesn’t mean that I was able to enjoy it.

Part of this is that VNs generally expect the illustration to do a lot of the characterisation work, particularly when it comes to facial expression and body language. The standard anime VN style tends towards exaggeration and conventional stylisation of expression, which makes it easier to successfully communicate the mood and emotion but also tends to push charactersiation towards caricature and melodrama. Traveller isn’t hugely anime-styled and is, I think, aiming for a somewhat more nuanced, individual range of expression, more emotional mid-tones. I approve of this, but it’s also very difficult – even professional art is littered with attempts at nuanced expressions that don’t quite work. Traveller makes this even more difficult because it’s mostly depicting aliens, which limits the cues you can include. I’m kind of flinching at the thought of doing all the art for this on top of the writing. So given all that, I feel like the art does a pretty respectable job – but not one sufficient to carry the writing to the degree that being asked of it.

There are some VNs which have big gaps between choices, but every choice you make is pretty important; that does not seem to be the case here. Quite a few of the choices seem as though they’re reflective. You can determine what order you’ll see the mid-game planets in, but you will end up visiting all of them. And then there are choices about endings. There is some real variation in here, but there are also very long choiceless sequences. I felt pretty detached from the Traveller.

The other aspect is that, like, this is a romance game, or something close to it. It’s not strictly about dating, but it’s about relationships that develop towards intimacy. While this is a kind of game that is extremely hard to do well, fairly minimal requirements for it to work as intended are that the audience should like the lead characters and get a sense of a dynamic developing between them. My prejudices here are that the former’s easier if the protagonist is more strongly voiced, and the latter’s easier if the player gets to participate more in the interaction. And… OK, my sense was that the Key Moments that this was invested in were the moments of trust and support and emotional intimacy, but it wasn’t necessarily as focused in the difficult process of getting there. And that kind of undermined things for me.

Anyway. There’s a great deal of care and work put into this, and I can respect that. But my main feeling when playing it was fatigue. I think that’s a 5.

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