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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Masques and Murder (James Patton)

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Masques and Murder is a Renaissance revenge fantasy that stands the traditional dating sim visual novel on end. You play a young Italian woman; your family is murdered during the tutorial, and the Prince tells you you must marry one of his three sons. Each son has a taste for particular skills and accomplishments. Impress the sons, and you can get close enough to kill them off.

The bulk of gameplay consists of training your various skills, from hawking to firearms to classics. Periodically new social engagements appear on your calendar, and you have to prepare to meet their demands. If you do well at the skills required, the brothers admire you more and are therefore easier to kill. If not, their admiration drops. There are a couple of small complications that add challenge — you need to keep them from getting too suspicious, and your study abilities are improved if you first reread your Revenge Poem, filling yourself with righteous fury.

This makes it easier and fairer than, say, Long Live the Queen, but also way shorter and less interesting overall. There are few narrative incidents where you can have a unique conversation with anyone; it’s basically all stat-grinding, one stat at a time. There are descriptions for what happens when you train a stat, but these get pretty repetitive, which means that the moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t very juicy: select a stat to work on, reread the same training text as before (often, anyway), select a new stat, … Still, it doesn’t take long to at least get the idea of the game, and I was amused by what it did with the usual tropes of its genre.

Eventually you become close enough to someone to attempt using your skills to kill him — and it’s just as possible to kill someone with verses as with swordplay. Full marks for the description of how to kill a man using your skill at classics.