Tender Loving Care (Trilobyte)

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I don’t think I truly appreciated John Hurt’s acting ability until I saw him in Tender Loving Care, a late-90s-era game with live action footage, created by the same people who made 7th Guest and subsequently brought to iOS by Trilobyte Games.

This is a truly extraordinary game. It has decent production values for its time, including hours of live video content; offers an assortment of conceptual innovations; deals in the realm of character and emotion rather than physicality; and then manages to be boring, offensive, and misguided in ways I’ve not seen in a game before. It is supposed to be an erotic thriller, but the one time I felt true apprehension was when I restarted the app after some time away and saw that I was offered only a “Begin” button. Had it lost my progress? Was I going to have to go through those three hours again? Answer: No, it hadn’t; it just had a UI bad at communicating state.

The premise is that Dr. Turner, played by John Hurt, is showing you scenes from a case that went terribly wrong. The case involves Allison, a woman who has lost her daughter in a car accident but lives in the delusion that Jody is still alive; Michael, Allison’s frustrated and exhausted husband, who hasn’t processed his own grief or gone back to work, but who has been forced to look after Allison as she’s ceased to be a partner in any meaningful sense; and Kathryn, the live-in psychiatric nurse specializing in trauma whom Michael has hired to sort things out. Kathryn is cartoonishly provocative, wearing insufficient clothes and licking her lips to camera.

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Her Story, Further Reflections

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I wrote a review already about Her Story, and that is what you should read if you are trying to decide whether to play it.

But lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.)

I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it?

So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it. This will be very very full of spoilers and also really heavy on the personal reflections, so if you are not interested in those things, bail now.

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Pry (Tender Claws)

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PRY is an iOS story that combines video segments and text to explore the inner and outer worlds of a veteran who is still struggling to process his experiences in the war, who is suffering from vision impairment thanks to wounds sustained there, and who is now trying to hold down a job in demolitions.

The interaction consists entirely of swipes and touches of the text: not, as in a hypertext environment, selecting particular words and choices, but instead pinching portions of the screen together, pulling them apart, or sliding along a line of text. The hand is in contact with the screen almost all the time, and movement is almost always meaningful; operating PRY feels tactile and analog, like playing an instrument.

The conceit is that there are several layers of reality happening at a time. Though this is handled in different ways in different chapters, the general rule is that if we spread the page open, we’re opening the protagonist’s eyes, looking outwards, and seeing objective reality. Sometimes that objective reality takes the form of video about what is happening around us; sometimes it’s different text. Or, again, if we pinch the page closed on itself, we’re retreating into the subconscious, where flickering surreal images and rapidly cycling single words of text indicate our fears, our memories, our connections with the present. The subconscious recollection of childhood, or of an incident in war, might underlie our uncomfortable reaction to what is happening on the job site.

pry_brailleThemes of sight and the ability to see are crucial. In one chapter, we can read a braille passage about Jacob and Esau by swiping over the braille text; this functions as an audio scrub, moving the voiceover forwards and backwards. One can read tentatively, a single word at a time, or fast, fast enough to turn the words into semi-gibberish. This appealed to me on several levels: because it recapitulated the physical experience of the protagonist, and that is a level of involvement that iOS games are very rarely able to offer; because it put me in a position of temporary and uncomfortable illiteracy (I can’t read braille and the string of dots meant nothing to me on their own) that suggested helplessness; because I felt relieved when I was able to get the translation after all, via unconventional means.

(Ironically, I suspect that this would be a very difficult game to make accessible to visually impaired players, but I’m not sure.)

Elsewhere, PRY offers a text that opens and opens and opens. Initially there are just a few lines of text on the screen. Pinch them apart, and new sentences appear between old ones, expanding the narrative outward. Sometimes, in a virtuoso trick, the new sentences change the meaning of the sentences that come afterwards: a pronoun now refers to someone different, a description to something else. But the text has to work in both its closed and its open formats. There’s a lot of content here, too — you can keep expanding, keep reading more and more into the screen, for longer than seems plausible. And when there’s no more detail text to be read, sometimes peeking between the lines will instead reveal the subconscious response, flickering words that convey the protagonist’s ambivalence or fear. The lines that have been fully and wholly explored fade gently to a darker grey, guiding the reader to where new material remains to be seen.

It is, in short, an ergodic work that requires a reasonable amount of effort from the player, but the smoothness of the design means that that effort is low in friction and typically enjoyable. There are no choices available that will change what happens in the story, or even how the protagonist feels about them; our decisions are entirely about how deep we will go into the protagonist’s understanding, and what aspect of his experience we want to look at when.

PRY was released without all of its chapters, but even as it stands it is appealing and evocative, and very unlike most other interactive story interfaces I’ve encountered.

(Disclaimer: PRY came to my attention during IGF judging, but I played a copy that I purchased.)

Her Story (Sam Barlow)

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Last year I wrote about the way Gone Home is mostly backstory but doesn’t yield to thematically directed exploration. I talked then about wanting to see more games of research, pieces where the player could make guesses about where things were going and then test them out.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story accomplishes that nebulously-framed wish of mine, and brilliantly so.

The idea is apparently straightforward: the protagonist has access to a database of video snippets taken from the interrogation of a woman involved with an apparent murder more than 20 years ago. The video snippets all have searchable subtitles, which means that if you look for a word that is spoken in one of these snippets, you can bring it up. What you can’t do is watch all the snippets in order; and if more than five snippets are associated with a particular keyword, then you can’t access those after 6. (This prevents the game from being too easily solved by someone who latches onto key names early on.)

As a police filing system this is perhaps not very practical, but it makes for a highly engaging game. One starts with a prompt, “murder”, which turns up several snippets with which to get started. From there, it’s a matter of thinking of new keywords to enter. Sometimes the keywords are names or places mentioned in one video that are obviously important. Sometimes I reached them by association or guesswork instead: if one hears about a death, it’s reasonable to want to know what happened at the funeral, for instance. And, of course, the same snippets of video may be reached by several different routes, so there’s less of a premium on exhaustiveness than in something like Toby’s Nose (but perhaps more than in the intentionally unmappable daddylabyrinth). It also feels less controlled and gated than Analogue: A Hate Story.

The game also has a second level of robustness, namely, it’s not necessary to see absolutely every snippet in order to work out what happened. 80-90% is probably sufficient. Personally I had a pretty good idea of what had happened by the end of a couple of hours, though I kept playing for a while longer in an increasingly quixotic mission to find the last remaining bits. I failed to get them all, but I reached a point where I felt pretty satisfied.

It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable. After playing through this myself, I brought it along to an interactive fiction meetup and watched another group of people play: they saw the story unfold in a totally different way than I did, but it still worked. (They were also so fascinated with the game that we stayed on that for two hours and never moved on to other activities.)

There are a couple of features of the snippets themselves that make this scheme work. First, they’re telling a story that is very complicated (so there’s quite a lot to find) but differently shaped from what you might initially expect (so you’re not just filling in some sort of Motive/Opportunity/Method chart).

Second — and this is a reflection of both writing skill and the quality of the acting — they contain multiple kinds of information. In the earliest phases of the game, the player is just trying to get a sense of the key people and places in the story, scanning the snippets for names to build up a who’s-who. Then one starts comparing new snippets to old ones, looking for factual discrepancies and implications. Later, after the shape of the story has started to emerge from the mist, they start to be readable for emotional hints as well. There are details — visual details, verbal details, tones of voice and choices of imagery — that only take meaning after the player knows quite a lot about what is going on. And that is why the same snippet can still function well in the building of the narrative regardless of whether you see it as almost your first pick of the game or not until quite late.

I’d like to talk about the actual content a bit; however, any discussion of the story itself is of course massively spoilery, even more so for this work than for most games. So I’m going to put that behind a tag.

However, if you’re reading this review to find out whether I think it’s worth playing: yes, absolutely. If you’re a parser IF fan from the old days, you probably remember Sam Barlow from Aisle, a one-move game that is still one of my go-to pieces for introducing new players to parser IF despite the fact that it was written in 1999 — and you may find that the game has more in common with parser IF than you might have thought possible. If you’re a student of experimental narrative forms, this is a smashing example that people will be discussing for some time, and you should know about it. If you’re more of a mainstream indie game enthusiast, you’ve probably already seen the collection of positive reviews Her Story has racked up elsewhere, but in case you haven’t: this is not only a fascinating experiment, it’s also a solid, suspenseful gaming experience that kept me on the edge of my seat.

And the disclaimer: I bought this game in preorder, but Sam then sent me an advance key so that I could play early and review it.

Go play it before you read anything else I have to say. PLAY IT PLAY IT.

Continue reading “Her Story (Sam Barlow)”