IF Comp 2019: Chuk and the Arena

chuk.pngChuk and the Arena (Agnieszka Trzaska, Twine) is a puzzly choice-based SF game. Chuk is a member of a diminutive species, the Gyffids, whose moon has been stolen by a galaxy-spanning empire-corporation. The bad guys are also throwing an arena tournament, and Chuk – with entirely more optimism than is warranted – hopes that winning the tournament will be a way to get the moon back.

It’s very much an adventure game in format – if anything, it reminded me of the classic point-and-click era, what with its populated world full of cartoonish oddball characters, underdog protagonist and focus on combining items. It’s very good at signalling its structure and giving players a sense of what sort of direction the puzzles are going; that said, it’s a good-sized game and I didn’t make it to the end – in part, probably, because I always had a sense that I could figure these puzzles out, so I didn’t go into walkthrough mode much.

The plot is gated around a series of arena fights, which, as a small and not particularly tough critter, you can only win by discovering and preparing for your opponent’s weaknesses. Chuk’s main power is the ability to change colour, although being small and beneath notice features just as much. Most of the puzzles involve disguise, deception or manipulation; the inhabitants of the station are a not particularly attentive bunch, have a lot of exploitable quirks, and are liable to underestimate you.

The main issue I had with it was that, as something that’s working primarily as comedy, it was silly rather than funny. There’s a lot of goofiness but not a lot of laugh moments; most of the satisfaction in the game comes from getting puzzles right, rather than from inherently-enjoyable prose. The writing’s not bad by any means, and the situations it’s describing have potential as good gags. And this isn’t a matter of jokes falling flat, either – I think it’s a matter of underplaying the joke.

What the writing is good at is conveying puzzle content: it’s very easy, even when reading at a natural pace without closely scrutinising the text for clues, to pick out what information is going to be a puzzle-piece and how it’s likely to be used. And I think that a lot of this is about keeping the text straightforward, which makes it less likely to be funny. Here’s a fairly minor example from early in the game:

Can I borrow your scissors?

LIBRARIAN: No, you can’t. I have to cut these labels (sob). It’s so repetitive, it makes me depressed. Besides, if I gave you the scissors, you’d only hurt yourself with them.

What’s going on here is that the librarian is of a species that’s very emotionally responsive to colour: this is explained in a nearby book. Chuk’s skin tone is blue, so she’s depressed: the puzzle is to figure out a skin colour that will put her in the right mood to give you the scissors, but the player has to make the connection that this is what’s going on. As a gag, the joke here is that the librarian’s reactions are over-the-top – there are a million ways to play that joke. But in terms of communicating a puzzle clue, there’s incentive to keep the information as simple as possible: the crucial information being delivered is ‘the librarian is too sad to give you the scissors’, and further elaboration could obscure or distract.

As that extract suggests, there are some tensions in the tone. On the one hand, the regular delivery of this is of a light-hearted, silly mischief with cartoon villains. But the basic story here is about an oppressed person resisting a coloniser through participating in a blood sport, and there are moments where the tone goes darker – the scene where one arena fighter brutally beats another, or when you sabotage the work of a (almost certainly sentient) robot chef, resulting in him being scrapped for parts. I wasn’t able to finish the game within two hours – it’s a pretty substantial piece – so I’m not sure how this resolves towards the climax.

Solid design work, serviceable writing, and mild fun: I think that’s a 6.

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