Black Closet (Hanako Games)

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Black Closet is a dating sim/resource-juggling sim from Hanako Games (Long Live the Queen, Date/Warp, and numerous others). In it, you are Elsa Jackson, the student council president at St. Claudine’s, an all-female Catholic boarding school. (I hadn’t heard of St. Claudine before this game, but it was satisfying to look her up and discover that the authors seem to have picked her with some intention. Claudine Thevenet was interested in schooling for girls and also founded an institution to support female authors. It seems she was also, less happily, a sufferer of lifelong PTSD after seeing her two brothers executed in front of her.)

Catholic or not, the school still features quite a bit of romance between its students. Your task is to get through the year and graduate – which will require you to investigate and resolve assorted conspiracies, crises, and personal misunderstandings in the student body.

The other members of the student council are therefore both your dating pool (if you choose to date, which is not mandatory) and your tool for solving problems, as you’re assigning girls to intervene where their skills make them most suitable.

This by itself gives the game quite a different flavor from the lonely and ridiculously hard Long Live the Queen. This time, you are not alone. You don’t have to make yourself into a singular repository of all virtues. Not everything falls to you to deal with. Conversely, there are some paths of action that will alienate one or more of your team members so that they are less available (or, worse, leave entirely).

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Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

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Regency Love is an iOS game set in a pseudo-Austen town; it is in the same general territory as a dating sim or visual novel, but with a structure that also owes something to roleplaying games.

The core interaction loop is that the player can select a place from the map of Darlington, their town; the place may yield one or more possible activities. The activities can either be quizzes about Regency life (how long should you properly mourn a sister? how much did muslin cost?) or social interaction scenes that are primarily dialogue-driven. From time to time, there’s an opportunity to do another quiz-like activity, a game of hangman in which you’re trying to fill in a missing word from a famous quotation, mostly from Austen. Doing quizzes and hangman gains you motivation points which you can spend to raise your skill in one of six “accomplishments” — drawing, needlework, reading, dancing, riding, music (harp and pianoforte and singing are not distinguished). Some of the social activities depend on you having a certain accomplishment level in a certain area before they will unlock. Other social events depend on what has already happened.

Using a map to pick the next little story you want to participate in also reminded me a bit of StoryNexus, though whether the underlying engine relies on anything like quality-based narrative, I have no idea.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

I was never a great enthusiast for the quizzes and stats part of this game. The questions refer to information from Austen that is not provided internally, so you either already know the answers or you have to guess. There aren’t enough hangman sentences and quizzes to last the whole game, either, so you’ll see the same things repeat over and over again before you’re done. Meanwhile, your accomplishments are necessary enough that you can’t ignore this part of the system, but there’s not enough variety to what the stats do to make it an interesting choice which one you raise next. Somewhere between halfway and three quarters of the way through play I had maxed out all my accomplishments and could now afford to ignore the whole quiz-and-hangman ecosystem, which was a relief.

Based on your behavior, the game also tracks character traits, reflecting whether you’re witty, dutiful, etc. It displays what your traits are, but I never worked out exactly what was moving the dials. What I said in conversation must come into it, but I didn’t know which dialogue did what. Nor did I ever figure out how it mattered. Some events were plainly closed to people with less than 12 Needleworking, but I never saw an explicit flag that excluded people who weren’t witty. So the character trait system may have been doing important things, but it was opaque enough that eventually I started to ignore it.

What does that leave? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. I like talking games! This one made some slightly peculiar choices, though.

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Games about Community: Ohmygod Are You Alright? (Anna Anthropy), Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis), Tusks (Mitch Alexander)

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 5.02.00 PMOhmygod Are You Alright? is a flash-augmented Twine piece by Anna Anthropy about the experience of being hit by a car and the recovery process afterward. The details of physical pain and the dehumanization of the hospital are unpleasant enough, though I suppose they could have been even worse.

But the game’s most lasting and unresolved pain pertains to how Anna feels about her community: lonely, cut off from support, no longer enjoying the energy and communal celebration of her earlier time with Twine. She touches on this in the ruleset for A Wish for Something Better, but Ohmygod goes into it more deeply. She mentions feeling surprised by the forlorn hope that being hit by a car will make people pay attention again. There’s wistfulness, too, about having been at the forefront of a movement that now contains a lot of other practitioners.

If games are not great at NPCs and individual relationships, they’re often downright terrible on communal responsibility and community formation, but Ohmygod made me think about two other games I’ve played recently that touch on the function of community in our lives.

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Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games)

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I’m not exactly getting to this one in a timely fashion. Long Live the Queen is a visual novel/sim that has been out for a couple of years now, and people have been telling me to play it, and I’ve just been somewhat overwhelmed by how hard it is to get through. But now I have managed to win (once) and die (a lot of times), which is supposedly the correct proportion for this game.

The premise is that you are 14-year-old Elodie, the princess of a kingdom faced with internal and external strife, and you have to live through the 40 weeks until you turn 15 and are crowned. Every week you choose two subjects to study from a bewildering array (everything from Accounting to Divination, Elegance to Archery). Every weekend, you pick a weekend activity that affects your mood, which in turn affects your aptitude for different subjects. And each weekend you also face certain specialized story choices, which follow a consistent schedule. Winning is largely about learning which challenges are going to come up when and which skills you’ll need to have in order to overcome them, and training accordingly.

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Quite a bit has already been written about LLtQ: about how hard it is, about how it compares with Princess Maker and Varicella. I want to talk about the cruelty stat.

This sounds like it’s going to be spoilery, but it’s really only mildly so: there are so many moving parts in this game that even a detailed analysis can leave a lot still to be uncovered.

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The Secret Language of Desire (Megan Heyward)

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The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.

It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.

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Hollywood Visionary (Aaron Reed, Choice of Games)

hollywood_visionaryHollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.

So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.

To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.

At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.

Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.

Now the more spoilery bit.

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