IF Comp 2019: Limerick Heist

limerickLimerick Heist (Pace Smith, Twine) is the second game I played this comp. The first game I played was just astonishingly terrible, and this was thoroughly delightful, so welcome to the goddamn rollercoaster.

I’ve got a Thing about formal poetry in games. It’s usually bad, and when it’s bad it’s usually terrible. Poetry is a specific and highly demanding skill that a lot of writers have little proficiency or experience with, and game writers often have to turn their hands to unfamiliar tasks. And, well, bad poetry falls very painfully on my ear. I’ve had friends play Child of Light at me just so they can giggle at how mad I get about weak scansion.

I am like this because I love good formal poetry, and I particularly love a really cleverly-constructed comic poem. (I’m terrible at analysing Serious Literary Poetry, but if you don’t tell me to shut up I will bend your ear for hours about nuances of Housman’s The Crocodile.) And Limerick Heist charmed the shit out of me. I am refraining from directly quoting any of the good bits because I want you to find them for yourself, but there are a lot of good bits.

Limericks are a great popular form. They’ve got more structure than rhyming couplets, (which makes people more likely to notice that scansion is a thing), but they’re not as technically challenging as a sonnet or a sestina. The AABBA rhyme structure is really good for delivering a punchline, so they’re usually jokes and therefore have never felt like inaccessible High Poetry. Limericks are compact: the jokes that are packed into a limerick are usually entire stories in themselves, and even when that’s not the case – as here – you still have to attend to every line, pack a lot in, cut the dross. The result is that Limerick Heist moves along very snappily. It is not a novel or surprising story – indeed, it relies quite a lot on the fact that we know the expectations of this genre inside-out. It feels like a very 21st-century, Leverage-era heist piece, able to keep the narration very fast and snappy because it’s full of well-established genre conventions that can be done as shorthand.

The characters, too, are brief sketches, but strong sketches; their recruiting sequences, however brief, are primarily introductions to what their style is and what they care about, which is as it should be. As befits the genre, they’re all ludicrously good at what they do, most of them are sass-mouths, and they’re all immediately charming. It’s in a Leverage-y feelgood vein, also; the team cohere and trust one another very quickly.

The cast can be a little tricky to track – you’re introduced to a full cast of characters rather quickly, who are initially named as roles but then change to codenames. The game helps out by colour-coding everyone’s speech, but I still had some slight trouble keeping everyone straight.

It indulges in silliness a lot; you can lose because you picked a first line with an obviously difficult rhyme scheme, or because you clicked on a nonsensical option that was sprinkled in among the reasonable ones. One of the team is literally Teller, of Penn and Teller. The team are given codenames based on which Metroidvania they think is best; this is a subgenre that I know nothing about but I was entertained by this moment anyway.

It doesn’t feel very deeply interactive as you play it, and the form is for the most part a deadly gauntlet with some of the failure endings delayed: a lot of choices are failures if you make bad choices earlier on. (One of these is a little disappointing: the only choices you get in choosing your team are between the two grifters, but one of them will always cause you to fail the heist, and that feels a bit like taking away a really fun choice. It seems likely that this was the result of triaging scope.) The way you make a gauntlet fun is by keeping it moving quickly, offering the player choices which feel weighty and intuitive, and making sure the writing’s good enough to hold the player’s attention throughout: check, check, check. In a deadly gauntlet it helps a lot to make the failure endings rewarding, too, and it pulls that off handily.

There’s a lot of pleasing returns in the text, too – a poetic convention, absolutely, but one which gives a sense of rhythm and wholeness to the story. There is a unity, here, between the formal structure of a heist narrative and the way a good narrative poem relies on recurrence. I’m just very happy when somebody conspicuously knows what they’re doing, OK?

A joy, and a considerable technical accomplishment. At least an 8, probably a 9.

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