IF Comp 2018: Animalia

animaliaAnimalia is a game in which you play four forest creatures who are trying to cover up the ritual sacrifice of a small child by piloting a replica of that small child. You get to choose which animals control the head, arms, torso and legs; some of them are more inept than others, but the sum effect is always a big mess. It is a very silly game, and genuinely funny.

Wacky is a difficult thing to pull off. Surprise is a big element of comedy, and particularly so in wacky comedy – if a particular approach to wackiness becomes familiar and predictable, it has nothing going for it at all. And Animalia is doing a slight spin on a very well-trodden schtick. It’s part of a vast family of jokes – There’s Something Wrong About This Dude, And We’ve Got To Hide That. Octodad, QWOP. Every Weekend at Bernie’s corpse gag, every three-small-children-in-a-big-trenchcoat bit, every thing where aliens attempt to pass as human. There are two jokes in this scenario: the impostor being bad at imposting, and how their marks manage to buy it anyway. (In this case, because kids are weird and Charlie was a weird kid in the first place).

But it doesn’t feel like a tired retread of something we’ve seen a million times. It manages to pull off quite a lot of physical slapstick despite being all-text; it does just as well with the squad’s disastrous social efforts and internal conflicts. I don’t have a lot of useful analysis about how it manages this, except for the rather unilluminating explanation of Good Writing. There’s not a lot of space in wacky comedy between ‘painfully tedious’ and ‘really good’ – either the joke lands or you die – but Animalia lands it.

For a very branch-and-bottleneckish game, it doesn’t try incredibly hard for narrative consistency. The worldbuilding doesn’t make a lot of sense and makes less sense in some playthroughs. I got the distinct sense that some results happened, not because of the causal effects of the choices my PCs made, but because the scenes I had seen made later scenes narratively possible. This gives it a feel not unlike the improv quality of a tabletop storygame; the story has to go forwards somehow, and it doesn’t matter if its foundations wobble a bit. (Now that I think of it, this is probably the most Fiasco-like piece of IF I’ve played.) It’s an approach I’d like to see more of – I’m not wild about the assumption that game narratives have to be built around the protagonist’s agency as expressed through player actions.

This combination – a branch-and-bottleneck structure, but a sense of open, freewheeling, almost improvisational possibility space – only works because there’s a lot of content. There are lots of small details that change depending on your group selection; there are entire scenes which pop up as a delayed reaction to a stupid off-the-cuff response that you’d forgotten about; there’s a puzzly scene which requires getting all your ducks in a row. The main ending seems to mainly depend on which two animals spoke to one another in an interlude which, at the time, seems like a character bit that’s not crucial to the plot.

A select-your-team mechanic is instantly appealing (more getting-the-team-together sequences in games, please) and it has immediately-visible consequences in terms of the options available to you. It also means that there’s a broad range of characterisation, and character interactions, on offer – and, again, the writing does really well here at giving characters life within quite a small space. Comedy is perforce populated with jerks and fools, and invites us to laugh at their suffering, so it’s very easy to rely on two-dimensional punching-bags. Animalia gives almost every character some depth; even if none of them are extraordinarily complex, they’re people who have cares and quirks and more going on than absolutely required by their narrative function. This gives the whole piece a feeling of warmth that I wouldn’t necessarily expect from a wacky slapstick comedy with lots of murder.

It’s got really nice polish. The font and colour choices are all great. Text is delivered in chunks that are well-calculated for pacing. It has tools designed to make it easier to replay and get different outcomes – a thing I’d like to see a lot more of. It feels very squared-away.

It’s difficult to derive much of a unifying theme out of Animalia. If there is one, it’s that it assumes the two sides of a conflict – despite mutual suspicion and incomprehension – to be pretty similar: both humans and animals are shown being bloodthirsty, cruel, short-sighted, kind, incompetent, petty, full of wonder and love for things. There’s no explicit ‘maybe we’re not so different after all’ moral that I ran into, but the sense of it begins to come through after a few sessions. Even so, it feels more like a side-effect of its general approach to comedy than a Thing it’s Trying to Say.

I keep feeling that the only scores I want to give out this comp are 8, 5 and 3. I’ll have to do something about that, later. For now, this is an 8.

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