10pm (litrouke) is a Twine piece depicting a single conversation.
The protagonist, Bird, is a twelve-year-old boy who only speaks in pictograms (which might represent sign language, though I don’t think this is ever made explicit). His guardian, Ty, understands them (possibly imperfectly) but responds in English. As the scene opens, Bird is sitting up waiting for Ty to get home, late at night.
There are things going on that we aren’t told directly. There’s a suggestion that Bird’s inability or refusal to speak is tied to trauma. Ty is not Bird’s legal guardian, and we don’t know how they ended up together; Bird is undocumented, a non-citizen. Ty is involved in unspecified shady business. Bird is isolated – both by language and by his inability to go to school or otherwise participate in the wider world – and over-reliant on Ty, and frustrated about it.
We don’t get very clear answers about most of this. We don’t really get a whole lot of resolution: this is a single scene, a snapshot of a relationship. There are a number of ways it can resolve, and it rewards re-playing; I caught things on the second and third passes that I had missed the first time around. (To be fair, some of that’s because I missed text the first time around because a lot of the conversations display on a timer rather than letting you click through.)
You choose what to say by dragging pictograms into a speech bubble; sometimes you can combine different pictograms, and sometimes you have to pick a full set to go together, and when you mix and match it’s not always entirely clear what exactly the combined meaning is – or the extent to which the game acknowledges it. Quite a few of the choices will result in the same responses whatever you do, and the through-line is very branch-and-bottleneck.
(A small interface quibble: you can drag pictograms into speech boxes, but not drag them out again; you have to click a ‘start again’ button. This is really unintuitive – even after I’d read the ‘start again’ button a dozen times I’d still go to drag icons out of the bubble.)
Pictograms representing speech in games is nothing new: The Sims has long used them to give a general idea of a conversation’s subject-matter while avoiding the much more challenging task of generating varied and grammatical text. (And there’s a slight degree to which, well, absent this gimmick it would have been way more challenging to write Bird’s lines than Ty’s.) In IF, there’s Gun Mute, which simplifies the range of social actions available to the player by denying them speech. The other comparison that springs to mind is Known Unknowns, which features a ghost that speaks in emoji. The point there is that communicating that way is difficult:
YOU: I want to help you, okay? I just… don’t know how.
YOU: I know it’s scary. Being… dead.
YOU: I mean… I guess I don’t know. Not exactly. But I want to. I just need help. You need to give me some way to—
In that case, the point is that the ghost can’t speak directly; if Nadia could understand him then the mystery would be quickly solved. That’s not quite the deal here. Bird and Ty understand one another pretty well on the important points, and work through what they don’t understand; the mysteries are mostly mysterious to us.
That’s part of the deal: Bird and Ty are very close, but there’s a lot that they keep, or try to keep, from one another. Ty has marks on his neck which – as far as I can work out – are from sexy choking with some guy he doesn’t want his girlfriend to know about. Bird tells a story about getting mugged, but it seems possible that he’s fabricating it for sympathy, or maybe he’s just more afraid of what happens if Ty gets mad than he is of muggers. Bird cooks and cleans and clearly spends a lot of time cooped up in the house; but he also has access to money somehow – Ty comments on him being able to afford steak. It’s definitely not a healthy situation: unable to engage with the rest of the world, Bird is emotionally dependent on his guardian with an urgency you really wouldn’t expect out of a twelve-year-old, and Ty is not really equipped for parenting. Ty is a tough customer and seems to be involved with criminal doings, but, again, to exactly what extent is kept vague.
(Another quibble: the icon for Bird is clearly a corvid. I kept thinking of him as Rook or Crow rather than Bird – names with very different connotations. I think a generic Bird icon probably looks something more like a finch or a sparrow.)
All in all, a well-developed portrait of character and relationship, but one that left me feeling a little dissatisfied. It makes a lot of design choices that let it off the hook on Difficult Stuff – which is generally smart, but it feels as though this ends up painting itself into a corner. I complain a lot about games that are too short to fully develop their ideas, and games that get too long and sag; whereas this is just the right length.