IF Comp 2019: Rio Alto: forgotten memories

rioaltoRio Alto: forgotten memories (Ambrosio, Unity) is an illustrated adventure game; a disappointed artist retreats to a rural town, where he finds himself entangled in mysteries, secrets and long-harboured resentments.

The game opens with a really welcoming piece of UI design: the epigram comes with sliders that let you choose font, font size and line spacing. If I’m being honest, though, on a mid-sized laptop some of the fonts were awkwardly small even at the largest size, and the font I did choose ended up awkwardly overlapping the edges of cards.

The interface is like a somewhat more structured Texture drag-and-drop deal. As with Texture, I felt as though it was just kind of annoying to drag-and-drop for a lot of simple actions like examining. It’s at about the same level of bother as a graphic adventure where you have to click on the ‘eye’ symbol before examining something – graphic adventures long ago figured out that examine should either be a simple click or get abandoned entirely. And this is made worse because dragging is a little slow and juddery.

There are lots of things to like about this in theory. I particularly liked how locations get added to an inventory listing, letting you travel to any previously explored location. I think that the art is doing really crucial setting work. But every time I find something to like about this, it comes with an unavoidable ‘but’.

The text is mostly revealed through typewriter effect. I actually didn’t notice this in my first play session, perhaps because I was more focused on other aspects of the interface and therefore playing slowly. But in my second session it started really grating on me. If you feel like you absolutely must use typewriter effect, it’s really important to let the player opt out of it – either through clicking to interrupt the effect, or (better) by providing an option to switch it off.

There’s music. It’s nice enough music, but too obtrusive for me to read along to; I turned it off almost immediately.

OK. Let’s talk about the opening lines:

I wake up in the bedroom

At this point, just these words are enough to elicit the first stirrings of hair-tearing.

I wake up in the bedroom I took after arriving to Felisa’s home, not so long ago actually.

There are no rules in art, but ‘do not end the opening sentence of your work with “actually”‘ comes very close.

I wake up in the bedroom I took after arriving to Felisa’s home, not so long ago actually. The elderly woman welcomed me when life was hitting me harder. It was the post-war years and misery flooded the lives of many people, including my own.

I was a young man who dreamed of being an artist, I liked to paint so much… until a very dear person died unexpectedly and such loss led me to a deep discouragement. I left my family and the home I grew up behind in an attempt to overcome my personal tragedy.

Once again, we have a second-language speaker who is conversationally fluent but does not have enough command of the language to avoid awkward writing and develop a clear voice. There are a couple of grammatical errrors in here, but overall that’s less significant than the general command of style.

Felisa talks about her wedding portrait. Her husband’s name was Alberto, who left Rio Alto shortly after their son died. She still misses him even though he ran away, apparently…

Instead of direct dialogue, we get general descriptions of speech. This is efficient, but it also gives a sense of detachment – the protagonist’s emotional detachment, and our distance from the events that are being filtered through his reports; and this was exacerbated, I think, because of the size of the character portraits. I previously talked about how the size of face images in Eye Contact had a lot of influence over how intimate and intense conversation felt. Here, the opposite is happening: characters always seem as though they’re on the other side of the street, too far away to read their expression. This might very well be the intent: the protagonist is a stranger, and the story appears to involve a lot of suspicion and secrecy. But I’m not entirely sure about that, because so much of the game’s execution is a little off.

Ultimately, I hit a bug where the inventory/location tabs were all unavailable. Or I thought I did? In fact, the game wanted me to connect some thoughts before proceeding, but it didn’t really communicate that and so I thought it had run into a game-killing bug. Fortunately, the game autosaves, so quitting the game at this point didn’t lose me anything. But shortly after this I hit another sticking-point, and I didn’t make a lot more progress. I was at 30% completion and clearly had only just begun to get to grips with the story.

(Also: in general, I have very, very rarely seen this combine-two-thoughts mechanic done well. It’s almost always a guess-the-author’s-mind situation that brings play to a crashing halt and makes the player feel as if they’re flailing randomly. I think it’d be very nice if it ever was done well, but I’m not convinced that it can be.)

This is trying ambitious things with custom interface – not dramatically novel things, but it’s got a very clear idea of how it wants things to work for this particular story. But it’s still in rough shape – rough enough that it’s obstructing the story more than facilitating it. I think this is a 5 – a 4 on experience alone, but a bonus point for ambition.

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