Disclaimer: I currently have a contract with Choice of Games. I bought this game with my own money, but I am not financially disinterested in Choice of Games projects. I am writing about this one because I particularly liked it, but you should take my views with an appropriately-sized grain of salt.
I first encountered Max Gladstone through his first Choice of Games piece, Choice of the Deathless — a work set in the Craft universe of necromantic lawyers which he’d already developed through several novels. I thought the game was good, but also that it did a handful of things that suggested (to me, anyway) an author not yet entirely at home with the mechanics of his medium. There were stats that didn’t seem to matter much; there were relationships that were interchangeable and made the characters consequently feel a bit less important.
Then I read the first of Gladstone’s novels, Three Parts Dead. (I have not read the rest, yet, but I’ll get to them.) The book was well-paced and fun, and I had more of a sense of an author at home in his medium. There was plenty of action, but some other elements as well: the Craft is used to make bargains between powers and institutions. A contract from a god might supply a city with heat, or water, or power its defenses. An arrangement of this sort has to be drawn up carefully, recorded publicly, and sometimes defended in court. It is, among other things, a fiction that’s good for talking about systemic arrangements and the deals we make in order to allow the world to function. (If you liked Cape for its themes, this might be of interest to you.)
Now Gladstone has come back to ChoiceScript with Deathless: The City’s Thirst. It’s more confident and better structured than Choice of the Deathless, and it is a standalone story in the same universe. It does a decent job of introducing the Craft universe — enough so that you could start here, if you wanted, without either getting lost or spoiling parts of the other works for yourself.
I recommend it; mild spoilers about its premise and themes after the break.
The plot involves water rights in a city under drought, which has managed up to this point only by divine intervention. There’s a big agricultural valley outside of town, and big businesses that farm that valley, but require massive irrigation to make it work. The setting is Magic California, in short.
The protagonist works for a firm that is handling some contracts about the transfer of water, but necessarily these are always deals in which someone is likely to get screwed over in order to provide what someone else needs. You have some power, but you are not entirely free: more powerful and less scrupulous people are watching you, and if they don’t like what they see, they may turn against you. You can take sides; you can try to work out compromises; you can spend more and more of your own energy and your own soul trying to avoid taking anything from either side. Or you can take the cynical route and play for your own advantage, enriching and empowering yourself at other people’s cost.
There are, as usual for CoG games, several romance options: they’re much more distinct than the characters in Choice of the Deathless, where there were romance scenes with only the names swapped out. In City’s Thirst I had a stronger sense of an actual connection to them, especially Verity, your colleague in law, and Jess, who lives on one of the farms threatened with the loss of its water rights, and whose gender swaps depending on your character’s tastes. (I’m not sure whether it’s possible to get anywhere romantically with some of the other NPCs; I didn’t try in any of my three play-throughs.)
The mechanics do a pretty solid job of reinforcing the fiction. You can pick multiple ways of solving your problems, but you’ll always be forced to decide how you’re spending your resources and whose side you’re willing to take. The whole story is neatly framed with a matched pair of reflective questions about what motivated you at the beginning and at the end.
City’s Thirst has a shorter, less complicated plot than one finds in Three Parts Dead, but it uses its interactive breadth to explore the protagonist’s morality along multiple dimensions. Some of the end-game decisions are legitimately tough, and I hit one on my first playthrough that made me hesitate, swear, and walk away from my protagonist’s most important goals. On my second playthrough, I found out something grim that made me feel quite differently about an NPC. On my third, I played a route of pure self-interest, got what I wanted, and paid the price for it.