Ladykiller in a Bind (Christine Love/Love Conquers All)

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Ladykiller in a Bind is an erotic visual novel by Christine Love and co, released last year; it won the IGF Narrative category. Consequently, there’s already quite a lot of commentary about it, especially around its handling of queerness and kink; a late-game scene with dubious consent that bothered some players and that Love ultimately wound up replacing; about mechanics that do not make sex the end goal in itself. Andrew Plotkin wrote up his take on it, and the genre of visual novels in general, as part of his IGF Narrative judging overview.

Plenty of interactive erotica exists — and there’s plenty of demand for it, too, as witness the fact that people searching for interactive sex stories form a sizable portion of my daily blog traffic. They’re probably mostly disappointed, but perhaps this entry will console them a little?

But relatively little of what I’ve encountered is as well-written as Ladykiller in a Bind, particularly when it comes to characterization. As Olivia Wood points out, sex scenes avoid being embarrassing by having something to say beyond “here is a peek at the author’s fantasies.” Ladykiller does that. It uses its sex scenes to communicate who the characters are, and shape their relationships with the protagonist; to talk about honesty, fairness, emotional manipulation, self-image, power exchange, and consent. And sometimes the sex conversation feeds back into dialogue about other things:

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The story is very much a fantasy, with a cast of super-attractive, wealthy, popular just-barely-18-year-olds. And the framing plot is ridiculous: the protagonist is a girl cross-dressing as her twin brother and hoping that none of his friends, enemies, and exes on the ship will notice. Nonetheless, the sex scenes detail emotional states that are relatively rarely shown in media. I don’t just mean the BDSM aspects here, either. There’s a storyline about a character who is relatively inexperienced and also doubts her own attractiveness, who gradually alters what she wants to consent to as she becomes more confident, and this played out quite plausibly.

That’s not to say the game is, or is trying to be, an encyclopedia of all possible sex formats. There are some places it didn’t go, at least during any of my playthroughs: the BDSM scenes I saw delved deeper into the bondage and submission aspects than into the masochism side, for instance. And, unsurprisingly, the scenarios skew towards issues that arise early in a relationship or for relatively inexperienced partners. At one point the older Maid does comment on the comparative immaturity of all the characters — an acknowledgement that would have felt like a lampshade, except that of course these characters are immature. They haven’t had time to become anything else.

But never mind about sex. Let’s talk about conversation mechanics.

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Odyssey Jam

 

The Odyssey Jam was an itch.io jam running through March 26 for works based on The Odyssey, drawing ten games, predominantly interactive fiction and visual novel entries. Here are some thoughts on the entries:

islands & witches (Inform) has the player wander a maze of evocative locations from the Odyssey, occasionally collecting items, but mostly drifting from place to place. As the title islands & witches somewhat implies, there’s a focus also on the female characters of the story, many of whom have at least a few lines of dialogue when you encounter them in their various homes.

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Underworld
The air smells of lilies and blood. It is always just past sunset. There is a three-headed dog, spotted like a hyena, lying nearby. A iron double axe-head with dried blood on its blade is sticking out of the rocky ground.
Persephone is still here. All men must come to the realm of the dead one day, but you had hoped to find your way home first, even perhaps to know your name would live glorious beyond you. “How lovely to see you.” Persephone announces, as if to her court. You feel welcomed, perhaps excessively.

 

Although I did eventually reach Ithaka, I never figured out how to make Penelope pay attention to me, or work out what I should do with much of the game’s inventory, including a beehive and a rosemary branch. (I did make a makeshift torch, but it didn’t seem to matter that much?) So I wasn’t able to finish the game, and I’m not sure if there is a conclusion, or if I left some puzzles unfinished.

For writing and feel, though, this was one of my favorite submissions, and I could see it being expanded and polished if the authors are so inclined. It reminded me a little of Victor Ojuel’s Pilgrimage: large areas contained in a single room description, and vast sea-spanning voyages undertaken in a single move.

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Choices, Episode

There are several thriving brands of inteThe_Freshman,_Book_1ractive fiction on mobile that tend not to get a huge amount of coverage in the traditional IF community, despite their large player base. They’re placing well on the app store, though, and GDC talks increasingly cover them — so I went and had a look at a couple of the main contenders.

I should preface further discussion by saying that I have occasionally worked with mobile IF companies that might be considered to be competitors in this space. I did not spend any money on either of these games, though this does not mean I had review copies: they’re free to play with pay-to-unlock options in some places (and I’ll come back to that later).

Choices, from Pixelberry Studios, is a library app containing a bunch of different stories aimed at teenage girls. The top promoted story is The Freshman, and details the main character’s dating options in college.

IMG_0308It’s immensely trope-y stuff, especially if you got your tropes from 1955: running into a boy and having your luggage pop open, revealing (gasp) a bra! Exploring your suite, meeting suite-mates, and deciding whether to wear a bikini in your first encounter with your classmates. Playing getting-to-know-you games, deciding whether to drink or not. At least in the first few chapters, it’s an entirely social and low-friction vision of what college might be like, without the intellectual challenge, the self-discovery of being away from home and family, or the stickier kinds of interpersonal conflict.  (Perhaps it gets more complex later — I only played the first few chapters.)

Gender roles are stereotypical, and although I was able to choose a black protagonist, it looked as though the character art still featured her mom as a middle-class white lady at one point — which is of course possible, but it didn’t feel like an intentional storytelling choice at the time.

crownflameVanilla college is not the only option. Choices also offers several other books. There’s Rules of Engagement, in which the protagonists are aboard a cruise ship and forced to try to find love there thanks to the terms of a wealthy grandmother’s will. While that sounds pretty silly, I’m not sure it’s really a lot more ridiculous than many a romance novel I’ve encountered.

The Crown and the Flame is a fantasy story of a dispossessed princess and the male sidekick who remains loyal to her: there are still some romance choices, but also strands of combat, espionage, and political alliance. I managed to get myself killed a couple of times, but the game allows you to rewind instantly to the last choice point and pick another direction, so my political bumbling didn’t cost me too dearly.

The gameplay is reminiscent of a visual novel. Each area has its own background illustration; in-game text mostly takes the form of short pieces of dialogue from the various characters, shown in a box with the character’s face and expression visible as well. And, as in a dating-focused VN, the games take a lot of their initial startup time on introducing the cast of characters. On the other hand, the Choices stories felt comparatively linear, and they’re broken up into short chapters — targeted to the kind of constrained attention span one often has when interacting with a mobile device. And, unsurprisingly, the gameplay in The Crown and the Flame is nowhere near as complicated as in something like Long Live the Queen: the player isn’t necessarily expected to replay, let alone replay multiple times to find a survival strategy.

Then there’s the monetization.

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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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IGF Narrative noms are out!

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The list of IGF nominees can be found here. That includes the games nominated in the narrative category, for which I was one of the jury members. I’m excited about this, and I also know that this is the point at which some people are sad, either that they didn’t place or that the IGF isn’t doing everything everyone would like from it.

I’m not sure this is possible to solve, and I do think the IGF is worth doing anyway. However, I also know that just telling people “oh, hey, if you weren’t nominated, that’s not necessarily a judgment on you!” isn’t as comforting as it could be.

Hence, this year I’m going to try to be as transparent as reasonably possible about my own judging process. (I have cleared this with the organization.) We are discouraged from discussing other people’s votes and reasoning: it should be pretty obvious why that is, I think, but in any case these conversations need to happen in confidence. I absolutely do not speak for the whole of the jury in what follows, and other people had other views. But I’m allowed to talk about my thinking.

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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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