I’ve been meaning for a long time to play Jason Devlin’s “Vespers”, and today is the day I got around to it.
It wasn’t quite what I expected. From various references to it, I had thought it was going to be a game about moral choices in a Christian (or coherently anti-Christian) framework, when in fact it’s pretty theologically dubious; it’s perhaps better described as a horror story with morally-framed puzzle solutions.
But more after the cut.
To my surprise, what I found most interesting about Vespers was its construction, its success at arranging events and making characters take action; it has a lot of plot, but avoids the excessively linear feel of many high-plot-content games. The way it works is mostly neat sleight-of-hand:
The trigger: give the player something to do. (A nice, non-linear if simple puzzle solution goes here.) Just as he accomplishes it, ta da! There is a surprise coincidental plot event that moves things forward!
Variant trigger: put the coincidental plot event on a timer so that it happens just a few moves after the player solves the first puzzle, so it doesn’t feel so much like a cause/effect relationship, but the player doesn’t have much time to wonder, “So now what?”
Touchier, more dangerous variant of the trigger: have the trigger be the result of the player exploring or discovering something, so the plot event happens only when the player has learned some needed exposition. The problem is that the player doesn’t always know what he’s supposed to look at (this is problematic even in such generally well-constructed games as Shade). Vespers gets by in part by having a great deal of focus — there are surprisingly *few* things here — so that it’s usually pretty clear what we’re supposed to be looking at. And some of the time we’re explicitly sent off on expeditions to find out what happened to X or Y.
The geography force: give the player something to do. Make sure that he can’t get to the puzzle solution without stumbling across a character/thing that creates a scene or provides exposition.
The sleep force: give the player an urge (the need to eat or sleep, typically) which must be fulfilled fairly soon and which provides a natural reason for time to ratchet forward, bringing new plot into view.
Vespers hardly invented any of these, but it uses them to good effect. The player always feels like he has a specific goal, but rarely (as far as I saw) like the game was nudging him to do a specific action — which is the point where linearity really takes over. The characters help with this, because their conversation often suggests new directions of exploration without the game having to be too explicit. The multiple puzzle solutions also help, because they provide a sense of openness and choice (even though in many respects the game is fairly constricted).
In other respects, Vespers overplays its hand. The madness, gore, and isolation would have been more effective if they had been less pervasive; if there had been moments where the player dared to like the other characters more, and to have more hope about the outcome. As to the theology, I’m not going to take it on, because the about text more or less instructs the player not to try to take that seriously. So, well, fair enough. Even with those caveats, though, this is an ingenious piece of work, and deserves study from people interested in IF plot construction.