Eye Contact (Thomas McMullan, Twine) is a short conversational game. The conversation is accompanied with photographs of the principal NPC, cropped to just the eyes.
The sense that the image conveys feels really different depending on the screen you’re using. On a desktop browser, this feels like a much more intimate conversation than the text suggests: the image is larger than life, suggesting a conversation held at maybe a hand’s breadth, with intense eye contact held the great majority of the time. And while degree of eye contact and conversational distance are hugely variable elements of social style, I feel like that’s not something a lot of us do with people we’re not fixin’ to kiss. On a phone screen, the scale suggests something much more like a casual conversation – the expression is still completely readable, but not close enough to count every pore and eyelash, and you don’t feel as though the gaze is demanding your attention in the same way.
Reading emotional context just from eyes could be tricky: we get a lot of information from eyes but it’s not perfect, and usually read eye cues in concert with the rest of the face, body language, tone of voice and so on. But the accompanying text is a strong reinforcement: it would be pretty easy to get tone from even without the eyes. And generally you have some sense in advance of how your input is going to be taken, so everything reads really clearly. It’s good photography and good acting.
It’s not precisely a subtle piece – this is not a story with a lot of depth to it, and subtlety in expression is tricky to get from just the eyes. (Tangential hobby-horse warning ahead.) Another reviewer mentioned the six basic facial emotions, and you do get those here – but those are by their nature not subtle! Much of the nuance of expression, and what makes it fascinating, is about how those emotions combine and overlap and are suppressed or faked or culturally conditioned. So going with just the eyes has the advantage of simplicity and clarity, as well as just, like, needing to take far fewer photos; but it also confines your range of character expression.
I felt a tiny bit itchy, to be honest, about a game by a probably-male author where the synopsis is that a woman is unreasonably worked up about an extremely minor slight and your role is to carefully placate her while gently suggesting that she might need to consider the other side. Of course, this is framed as an experimental game, so I expect that we got here by a) assuming that the narrative should be fairly inconsequential but that b) it should allow for a range of strong expression. Which is why it’s a tiny itch.
Another thing: at time of writing, Eye Contact had the highest number of reviews posted thus far in the IF Comp review spreadsheet. That’s probably partly attributable to it being a choice-based, very short game – maximally easy to play and review – but that’s also true of some games with way fewer reviews. Those eyes are on the cover art, too, and I suspect that the draw of that direct gaze – and, in particular, the intimate gaze of a young woman – has something to do with it. That says something about the basic appeal of the technique, at least.
(It feels weird, also, not to credit the actor in a game where their contribution is this significant? I mean, there are plenty of legitimate possibilities about why not, just.)
A worthwhile experiment but a very slight story. It’s complete enough to be suggestive of how the technique might be used in more substantial projects, but too short to start exploring what challenges might be involved in that. 4.