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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The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

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The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

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Aviary Attorney (Sketchy Logic)

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Aviary Attorney is a game in which you guide some French lawyers, who happen to be birds, through evidence collection and trial scenes in which they pick holes in the opposing testimony. It owes a great deal to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, emulating its gameplay and in-court responses. People also compare with Hatoful Boyfriend, because both are visual novels with birds who act like humans, but Aviary Attorney owes less of a debt there: the gameplay and style are really rather different.

The art, meanwhile, is lifted from the public domain work of French caricaturist J.J. Grandville, and the game’s narrative takes place against the rising action of the revolutionary year 1848. There are also many current jokes and references: the evidence binder where you store pictures of people you’ve met is your “Face Book,” for instance.

The joke could have been too weak to sustain play through the whole game. But I wound up liking it a lot, and not just because the game only needed a few hours to play through. Sketchy Logic do a good job with the light animation, the soundtrack, the dialogue writing: moment to moment, production values are consistently solid.

More to the point, though, this is not just a grab-bag of goofy cases. The whole piece is addressing themes of justice, rationality, the use of force, and the relationship between the poor and the wealthy. 1848 Paris, as portrayed here, is a place with huge disparities in wealth and class; a place where judges preferentially protect the well-to-do, and where police may arbitrarily shoot the poor. In one of the endings, you are literally assembling evidence to work out whether the victim of a (supposed) police shooting was hit in the front or the back, and under what circumstances.

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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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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

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