Neo Cab (Chance Agency)

Neo Cab tells the story of Lina, a gig economy driver about ten years in our future and in a slightly-alternate reality. In that world, a company called Capra — part Uber, part Teslahas rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars that make human drivers largely obsolete. Lina can just about make ends meet, barely, but she’s been invited to Los Ojos to live with her old friend Savy, and that seems like a very welcome life change.

Surprise surprise, though: when she gets there, Savy’s situation is not quite as straightforward as she’d hoped.

The story plays out passenger by passenger: the loop consists of deciding what passenger to pick up next, having a conversation with them in the car, and dropping them off. There’s some light gameplay around trying to keep your passengers happy enough that your driver star rating remains above 4, and not spending so much money that you can’t afford to recharge your car or get a bed for yourself at night.

Some of the passengers are a little more out there than others. Agonon here runs a cult worshipping the Pain Worm that lives beneath the city.

But mostly, the substance of the game is conversation, very lightly animated. The things you’re allowed to say depend partly on the mood you’re in, with conversation options tinted different colors if they happen to be unlocked by your current frame of mind:

…and on the rare occasions when you’re not talking to a passenger in your car, then you’re probably talking to someone by chat.

It’s not always obvious how your conversation choices are going to drive your mood, and occasionally my passengers reacted to me with less than a 5-star rating when I thought I’d treated them just fine. But the system is forgiving enough that I didn’t find that aspect too frustrating; it felt more like it was representing the reality of a gig economy situation, namely that you don’t always know or control exactly how someone is going to respond to you, and there’s a little bit of arbitrariness in the experience.

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Lily’s Garden (Tactile Games)

Lily’s Garden begins with the protagonist inheriting a house from an elderly relative. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say “a stately home with attached grounds.”

Not long ago I asked on Twitter whether there was content people wanted to see more or less of on this blog, and one respondent said he missed the reviews of casual games with a narrative bent. (Miss Management remains my gold standard in this field, but there were others that I also really enjoyed.)

I answered that I don’t play as many of those as I used to: partly because my schedule has gotten more demanding, and partly because the time management and casual simulation games went through a phase where they just weren’t that great any more.

However, that conversation reminded me that there was a casual game I’d been meaning to try out — a mobile game called Lily’s Garden that received a warm write-up a while back from Carly Kocurek. And I’d heard a little from narrative designer Stella Sacco about what she was doing with the content, and was intrigued by the promise of a nuanced, grown-up storyline.

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Elsinore (Golden Glitch)

A 3D point-and-click adventure offering a huge amount of narrative agency and NPCs who murder each other. A lot.

Hamlet speaks more colloquially in this game than in the original, but he’s just as emo as ever.

Elsinore casts you as Ophelia living the timeloop of Hamlet over and over, trying to find a route through the story that doesn’t end with everyone dead. Life in the castle is an intricate machine which can be perturbed out of its intended schedule by every intervention you make, so your actions have a cascade of consequences.

You have visions of what is to come; you also have a journal and memories of what’s happened the last times through the story. With that information, you’re free to travel all over the castle, listen to conversations, gather news, and pass that data on to others. Even if you die in a given time loop, the information you’ve learned persists, giving you new options in the next playthrough. Structurally, that’s a bit like Hadean Lands, though the type of puzzle you’re solving and the rest of the narrative is very different.

Conversation is organized around events — triggered by time and narrative preconditions, and which allow you to learn things just by being in the right place at the right time — and your inventory of hearsay, provocative things you can tell other characters during the course of play. When you share information with a character, their knowledge and motives are explicitly updated:

In this scene, Ophelia has just listened to an event and learned new information; and Hamlet has updated his own preferences and plans as a result.
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Heaven’s Vault (inkle)

Heaven’s Vault is a game about piecing together meaning from atom-sized pieces.

The game’s chief mechanic involves translating inscriptions from Ancient, building a larger and larger personal dictionary until you’re able to interpret entire passages of scripture and significant warnings.

This mechanic is highly satisfying, especially during the early phases of the game. Words in Ancient are made up of a small number of primitives joined together, so as you guess at the meanings of words and sentences, you’re also developing an understanding of what the primitives stand for, what marks stand for nouns or verbs or changes of tense. The more inscriptions you find (and pretty much everything in the Heaven’s Vault universe seems to have a phrase or two of Ancient scratched onto or sewn into it) the more you’re able to decode. Like a crossword, it lets you use leaps of insight in any one area to shed light on others. And because you’re uncovering text, new inscriptions frequently offer new narrative insights.

I really, really enjoyed doing this. While the language of Heaven’s Vault is pretty much encoded English and doesn’t feature the ambiguities and alternative world views embedded in real foreign languages, the process of learning to read Ancient lit up the same parts of my brain as other forms of translation; so much so that I found myself identifying a sequence that meant “voice” and thinking, φωνή.

The game has some pacing issues, noted by other reviewers, and those pacing issues did affect my experience. And by the end of the first play-through, I wished the decoding mechanic would change up and let me make more extensive types of guess on my own, because frequently I “officially” was unable to read something whose meaning was perfectly obvious to me in reality.

Even so, decoding this game kept me onboard for more than 15 hours, at a period in my life where I have relatively little available time for playing anything and have to be extremely picky. And if you replay, you have a new game+ option that starts you over with your existing language learning intact, an accretive PC trick that allows the protagonist at last to feel like she actually is an expert in her chosen field. So if you feel you might also enjoy a translation adventure game, do try it out.

I wish to emphasize this point because I am now going to go into a mass of detail about what I think might have worked better if it had been done differently.

But that’s because this is a really interesting piece of work pioneering comparatively unexplored areas of puzzle design and narrative structure, and it’s at its most instructive when we look at what doesn’t quite work.

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Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope)

Return of the Obra Dinn is probably already familiar to you if you follow indie narrative games at all: winner of both the Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at the most recent IGF, the creation of Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope. I’m only getting to it now because I’m seriously behind.

The game puts you in the role an an insurance inspector, trying to work out what happened to everyone who used to be aboard a ghost ship. Thanks to a supernatural pocket watch, you’re able to revisit the time-frozen moment of death for every body you find, allowing you to explore one disturbing tableau after another to figure out who died, in what sequence, and why.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a very good game, one that achieves spectacle, surprise, and even some comedy within its confines. It’s worth playing with as little spoiler information as possible, so I’ve put less than usual above the fold. More design thoughts follow below, but they assume you’ve either played the game or read enough of a synopsis to be able to follow references.

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Donut County (Ben Esposito)

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Donut County is a mellow casual puzzle game wrapped in story. The gameplay: you control a hole moving across the ground. If you place it under something small enough to fall in, the object vanishes below, and the hole gets bigger. It’s Katamari-esque, but there are some nifty extra effects: the hole can fill with water, which makes things float on the surface; sometimes items that are in the hole give off smoke or fumes, or leave appendages sticking out, which you can use to affect the environment in new ways. (Note for new players, by the way: I initially found the gameplay a little sluggish, but going to the settings and turning control responsiveness up to maximum made it a much more natural and enjoyable experience.)

The story? This is all a game-within-a-game presented within a flashback, with multiple protagonists, sort of. Let me start from the beginning because there’s a lot to unpack here.

Donut County begins with a frame story that everyone in town is living at the bottom of the hole, after six weeks in which this hole has been terrorizing the community. Mira, a human, blames BK, a raccoon who has all this time been playing an addictive video game that involves hole manipulation (and just incidentally manages to really swallow things in the real town). BK also happens to run a donut shop, and the hole tends to turn up whenever anyone orders donut delivery at home.

As you, the player, play levels of Donut County, you receive experience points and rewards that correspond to the in-game points BK is trying to accumulate; and then you cut back to the frame story in which the denizens of Donut County are talking about what has happened to them over the past few weeks and whose fault it all is.

This makes for one of the most convoluted triangle-of-identity problems I’ve yet seen. The framing introduces an undercurrent of unease and self-doubt in what is otherwise a relaxing, candy-pink game of playful destruction.

Where do you-the-player stand in all this? Are you BK, playing the game and destroying the entire community? Are you one of the other townspeople or perhaps Mira herself, telling the story of how the gameplay destroyed the community, a kind of interactive reenactment? Is there a possible redemption in store after you’ve done all this? Should you maybe stop being a hole?

I want to talk about where the story goes from there, but this will involve spoilers, so let’s have a break first.

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