IF Comp 2010: Gris et Jaune

As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game.

I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with a couple of years ago: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. In 2008 that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale, and it made my reviewing process a happier one in 2009, so I’m sticking with it. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.

Next up: Gris et Jaune

Another horror game! This time we get a flavor of horror I like reasonably well: historic New Orleans; suggestive Voodoo magic; a zombie story more about souls than about lurching brain-eaters.

The protagonist has an odd and limited view of the world, for legitimate reasons. The prose style emphasizes this, with clipped, allusive sentences that rarely tell you everything you want to know. Here and there it has blemishes: typos, mispunctuation, quotations that aren’t clearly attributed to anyone and that don’t entirely make sense standing alone. The text could use more proof-reading. Despite these flaws, it is considerably more evocative and better controlled than the prose in many another, more polished game.

Traversing the not-quite-sufficient descriptions of this world is like driving a car with a periscope instead of a windshield. You can never see enough to be confident of what you’re doing. It takes a while to understand what the premise of the game even is, and longer to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing about it. I found the opening sufficiently intriguing to be drawn to continue in the face of my confusion; then I found myself floundering more and more.

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

S

I visited the hints many times, and each time found instructions that I would never have guessed at on my own. After the tightly curtailed opening, we’re granted access to a huge open world with lots to do, and the only explicit goal we’ve been given is the one thing we’re not supposed to do.

So. I liked the setting and concept of this game. I enjoyed the text. I really want to play it. But I find it unplayable at the moment, because the author has given too little attention to the question, “how will the player know what to do next?”

The beginning of a game is about teaching the player how to play, and that extends beyond stuff like communicating the vocabulary that the player will need. It also includes more macroscopic issues. What is the best strategy for the player in approaching the game? What does the player stand to lose if he screws up? Is it a game you’re supposed to fail and then replay to optimize? Where you’re supposed to explore and discover as much as possible? Where the narrative will lead you strongly?

Gris et Jaune had a very narrative-based tutorial where there were explicit instructions at each stage, and where freeform exploration was difficult or discouraged (because we have an unreliable/confused narrator and because many exits are blocked and objects aren’t available for ust to play with). What I learned during the early stage was that I should expect my behavior to be very much guided by goals and concerns communicated to me by the narrative, even if I subsequently gained a bit more freedom; conversely I should avoid exploring too freely or doing random things I didn’t yet understand the narrative motivation for, because this kind of behavior could make me lose the game.

Once this opening phase ends, though, you reach a part where the only thing the narrative tells you clearly is what not to do. The rest is up to you to discover.

But the game design doesn’t feel discoverable: for instance, I didn’t realize there was a path off the veranda until the hints prompted me to look at what seemed like generic scenery, very similar to other generic scenery elsewhere.

My meeting with Baron Samedi is an example of what made me nervous in a different way: I went into the bar not realizing whom I was going to meet; when I left, he vanished, but I’d (as far as I could tell) accomplished nothing. I was left to wonder: was that supposed to happen? Was there something I was supposed to get from him? Had I shut off a portion of the game or made something unwinnable?

Along similar lines, I went to the Swamp, got beaten up by Mama John’s flunkies, and had to undo dozens of moves and start that scene over. I was partly prepared for that scene — I did have the scrap of muslin with her blood on it — but again I only had it because of the hints; I could easily have gone in totally unprepared, and as far as I can tell there would have been no clue about what I was missing.

So as far as I can tell, the later game has to be played in an exploration-heavy way, because there isn’t enough narrative guidance to hint you towards a successful path. On the other hand, if you do explore, you can still screw up and lose fairly easily, and the game is not short enough to make those mistakes painless for the player.

I don’t know whether the author will feel like doing this, but I really hope he goes back to the game and reviews and tightens the puzzle design. This is harder than just giving the game a new coat of polish, but it’s worth it. The design revision might include soliciting quite a bit of feedback from beta-testers about where they’re getting stuck, what feels undermotivated, etc., and possibly installing some entirely new system for communicating goals to the player. I’d also just completely drop the faux-maze thicket. It’s annoying, it gains little, it’s unnecessarily old-school for what is otherwise not an especially old-fashioned game, and it will trigger traumatic flashbacks in a certain number of players.

But I do think that all is worth doing, because the setting, tone, and vision of the game are novel in IF. They deserve to be set out to best advantage.

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