IF Comp 2021: The Mermaids of Ganymede

This game is not in any way a reference to Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan; rather, it’s a straightforward space-adventure story that has, y’know, actual space mermaids in it.

It’s divided into chapters; each chapter takes place in a different part of the setting, and each has a very different central interaction mechanic – and, honestly, a somewhat different tone and set of genre touchstones. The first chapter is about managing the mood of your small crew under difficult circumstances, in a SF spaceship-disaster situation which hasn’t quite established how Hard SF-ish it wants to go; things flirt with SF-horror before taking a hard turn into mid-C20th pulp adventure, and the second chapter is about exploring the fantastical dome city of the space mermaids, and mechanically is about getting item A, walking across town and giving it to an NPC to receive item B. (There are Babel fish.) When you leave the city you end up encountering the Evil Tentacle Queen, which, still pulpy, but now we suddenly are expected to have strong feelings about radical body modification, which is the Evil Tentacle Queen’s whole thing but hasn’t really been at issue before. And after that we’re in a submersible searching an iceberg for a lost human spaceship, and abruptly we’re very firmly in Subnautica territory, mood-wise, but mechanically we’re in a somewhat difficult maze.

There’s a lot of polish on this: an appropriate and inobtrusive soundtrack, lowkey but solid-feeling Twine customisation; this level of things feels robustly confident. There aren’t any bugs. At the level of implementing design, this is solid work. What feels lacking is a sense of that design having purpose.

That’s not entirely fair. The thing that this wants to do is to fit in an entire space-adventure plot of several acts into a comp-sized game. And it does that: there are characters who want things, an ambiguous villain, the plot proceeds from place to place and offers a couple of twists at the points you’d expect, things build to a climax. A story gets successfully told, which is an achievement, but if you asked me ‘what’s cool about this story?’ I’d struggle to come up with an answer. This is a work with a lot of competence and no brilliance.

So here’s what I mean. The second chapter has you wandering around the alien city, aimlessly at first but with a growing sense of needing to figure out a way to escape. The city isn’t a dazzlingly original creation – when I say it feels like golden-age pulp, the general sense is that it’s pretty much like a human city except some of its inhabitants are merfolk and crabs and some plants are palette-swapped for coral and it’s all mildly goofy without ever quite being funny. And, sure, that’s fine, but if you’re doing a whole sequence about exploring the city then the point of that is to give me some kind of feeling about the city, you know? Maybe it’s showing the mechanisms and effects of a utopia or dystopia, maybe it’s a window into a culture, maybe it’s an opportunity to describe the protagonist through their reactions, maybe it’s just about the aesthetics or the mood. But I came away from this sequence without any feelings about the city except ‘they sure are fish-people, hunh.’ In theory this section’s about escaping captivity, but I didn’t ever feel like there was much pressure about this. It’s just sort of there, filling up a block of the narrative. 

A lot of the key plot elements are action-adventure sequences, to do with fights and man-shark attacks and other kinds of physical risk. Exciting action sequences are always a bit of a challenge in pure-text games, and this one doesn’t really land it. The fighting is mostly taken care of by NPCs, and it’s often glossed over in ways that can make it feel as if nothing consequential really happened. This effect is particularly notable in the iceberg sequence, where the threat of sharks and stuff looming in the background is fairly effective, but if you screw up and they get you then it’s not a HOLY SHIT moment so much as an ‘oh, how annoying’ moment.

One thing this wants to care about, quite a lot, is its NPC cast: in particular, the three crew-members and the one mermaid who gets attached to them. The first chapter is centrally about interacting with them, and in a game whose central mechanic was NPC management, it’d be a decent start. The problem is that in the next three chapters they’re mostly absent or of minor relevance to what you’re doing, and then in the final chapter they matter again, and there’s kind of the expectation that you’ve grown strongly attached to these characters by now and care a great deal about what happens to them, when I absolutely hadn’t. Some of this is that we haven’t had time, and some is that the player-character is a faceless ageless gender-neutral etc., which makes it harder to develop interesting interpersonal dynamics. They’re more diverse than you’d expect of golden-age pulp, which I guess is nice? But… yeah, there’s a moment where you deliver a rousing speech about how great you think they all are, and it doesn’t feel like an earned moment. It feels like – and this is a really common problem – the author has spent enough time thinking about these characters that they’ve come to love and understand them, and that they’ve kind of assumed that the audience has developed that feeling too.

It’s absolutely possible that a stronger voice could have made this jump out, or woven all of these somewhat-disparate elements together. I also think it’s possible that a game not written for Comp length could have had the space to develop and maintain the elements that this sort of grazes briefly against – or, more likely, that a shorter, less discursive plot could have allowed more focus on any one thing. In general I think it’s preferable – especially within the limits of a comp-sized game! to be really good at a couple of things rather than OK at a lot of them. So this is probably in the 5-6 zone; solid, nothing I really hate about it, but also not really anything I could get enthusiastic about either.

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