IF Comp 2015: Gotomomi (Arno von Borries)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

coverGotomomi is a very open-ended, sandboxy puzzle game set in a Japanese city. It took me several attempts and a look at the walkthrough even to really understand what my goal was. Once I did understand, it turned out that there were many many ways to try to pursue that goal, and the game didn’t give me clear hints about which way would be best. Even with the walkthrough, I did not complete the game in even one way within the two hours. I have the impression that multiple endings are available and that I’ve seen only a fraction of the game.

Gotomomi puts you in the position of a Japanese girl who has, for unspecified reasons, run away from her family and has to make it on her own. She finds herself in an environment that is huge and varied, full of people going about their own business, and largely hostile to someone like herself.

That sense of a difficult environment carries over to the play experience. The room descriptions are printed all as a single continuous paragraph, and even though exits are printed in bold, I found them less easy to parse than descriptions in most games: we’ve developed some parser IF conventions about when to put items on their own lines for ease of reading, and Gotomomi completely ignores those conventions. There is a maze area, and an area of darkness. By the time I got to that part of the story I was relying heavily on the walkthrough, but I saw little that might have helped a player trying to reach this area without cheating.

Similarly, there are areas where you can go IN to a new location where that isn’t really evident from the room description at all; you only discover that new location by examining some scenery in spite of the fact that a lot of the scenery here isn’t described.

In the right circumstances, many of the NPCs are open to extended conversation, not only about your possible activities in the world but also about their own lives and philosophies. One conversation snippet I had got into the topic of trafficking child prostitutes, while another turned into a discussion of Baudrillard. In a third, I had the opportunity of making small talk or not with a particular character, and was pleased to see that it was possible to sort of bond with him, even though his game function seemed to be primarily to check off another fetch-quest on my list.

Though this makes the world feel unusually rich, it also means that the character interaction can be labyrinthine. There is one section which I would not have guessed at without the walkthrough in which you have to go back and forth repeatedly between two NPCs, talking to each of them in turn about a situation, even though things appear to be at an impasse, in order to reach a state in which you can move forward.

Then there is also an element of randomness. On quite a few occasions, the player needs to buy and sell items through a bartering conversation with an NPC (uncommon but not totally unknown in parser IF). It appears to be largely random a) where the NPC originally sets their price and b) whether they are willing to be talked in the appropriate direction. The walkthrough gives some very useful guidance, like “do not sell this item for less than 6000 yen,” but without the walkthrough I would have had no idea what minimum I should be shooting for. Even with the walkthrough, I often found that I had to repeat a bartering session many many times in order to reach one in which the other party would cooperate with my set price.

The result of all of this is that it is very hard to start acting with agency in this world until you have done a lot of exploration: probably much, much more exploration than will fit into two hours for most players. Exploration of the world map, exploration of conversation states, exploration of potential goals. The walkthrough hints that you can pursue entirely different aims from the ones outlined there, but I don’t know what those might be.

Embarrassingly, the place where I felt I had the most control over what was going on and the best understanding of my situation was a passage in which I was carrying buckets of fish from one room to another.

With that said, though — if you take the game on its own terms, I found that it offers a great deal of freedom, openness, and depth of world state. Not only that, but the confusion seems to be an intentional part of the game’s aesthetic. At one point, the protagonist can get into a conversation about how Gotomomi (the city) is difficult for newcomers to navigate and that the experienced people who live there never seem to take the time to help out novices. If a player gets to the point of winning this thing on their own, it will almost certainly because they too have put in the time and become experienced — a sort of accretive PC.

All this may make Gotomomi a hard sell for the time-constrained play of IF Comp, and some players will simply never enjoy a game unless it gives them more direction, but there are others who might really find it interesting. If you think you might be one of those, just set yourself up to play sometime when you’ve got a lot of hours to spend, and take plenty of notes.

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