DHSSmall.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Mousechief's unique social indie PC/Mac RPG, Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble.]

Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is a game about prejudice, repression, and parochial thinking, in which your avatars are spunky teenagers determined to discover everything that's going wrong around their (apparently) sleepy 1920s town. In order to reveal secrets and find clues, your gang of girls challenges the other characters to mini-games that represent lying, flirting, teasing, and other forms of social engagement.

That description on its own ought to be enough to attract some curiosity: DHSGiT takes on aspects of human interaction that just don't appear very often in computer games. It does so in metaphorical terms (exposing secrets relies on a kind of word puzzle; lying is a bluffing game using card suits) rather than through direct conversation -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and there is plenty of written dialogue to accompany the more abstract interaction.

The game-play does manage to take some advantage of characterization, too, in that some of the mini-games need to be approached with different strategies depending on the personality of your opponent -- a strength I would have liked to see taken further.

Probably by intention, the game-play during the first part of the game is not the kind that you want to sit down with for hours and hours at a time. The mini-games are amusing (and several are considerably improved over those shown in the samples shown in the teaser version of the game that came out last year), but they become repetitive relatively soon.

The narrative structure doesn't entirely help with that. In fact, the instructions for the game encourage the player to play in relatively small pieces, and several features -- a "recap" option and the built-in reminders about the player's tasks -- make it relatively easy to come back and resume play after a hiatus. Some of the details of past interactions may have faded, but you can keep going.

I find that kind of play fosters a different relationship than I usually have with narrative-heavy games. Sometimes a game's story will draw me in (if it's any good) and make me want to keep playing until I see how it all comes out. The early stages of DHSGiT by contrast made me keep the story at arm's length.

That sense of distance is only heightened by the arch presentation: dialogue is very stylized, not only to represent the period but also to give the game a sort of ironic gloss. Locations are shown as spots on a playing board. People are represented by metallic pawns. DHSGiT is a game of a game -- the computer game represents a physical board and cards, which in turn represents the town and its population.

The gang-of-protagonists feature contributes as well. Over the course of a long playing, different girls may come and go from the gang; you may invest some time in improving a girl's skills, only to have her lose an important social wrangle and go away.

That means that the girls are in a sense interchangeable. Though they have different skill profiles, none of them has a particularly strong characterization, and none of the storylines seem to turn importantly on the question of who your girls are. The non-player characters are far more distinct and memorable than the protagonists.

Despite all that, there is quite a lot of story here. It starts out meandering and episodic, but plentiful (there's more narrative in fifteen minutes of DHSGiT than in an entire Dash game, which is admittedly not saying much). In the final stages of the game, that story becomes much tauter and more compelling, and much darker as well.

Where initially the hypocrisy of your native town of Brigiton was mostly a source of amusing ironies, by the end it becomes clear that something much deeper and more sinister has corrupted the relationships in the town, especially those between the sexes.

The final act revisits places and characters from the beginning of the game, which is an effective way to remind the player how far things have come: bullies who were troublesome at the outset are now easily managed and essentially pathetic, compared with the much greater problems around.

DHS2.jpgThe gameplay comes more into its own at this point, because though the mini-games do not become substantially more nuanced than they were at the outset, the stakes are now much higher. It's possible for things to go really wrong along the way: towards the end of the game there are a handful of abrupt, horrible endings that serve to remind you that your gang is in serious trouble.

You are likely to lose a couple of girls before the end, too -- even if they're not killed, events may traumatize them sufficiently that they have to go home, leaving you with a reduced force. And contrary to the structure of the more naive sort of RPG, your individual characters do not necessarily become monotonically more powerful until the end: instead they're likely to encounter set-backs in late play that will leave them with fewer options than they're used to having at their disposal.

All these features make it harder to win casually -- I had to replay the endgame several times to get an ending I was willing to accept -- but easier to take that ending seriously. (I'm sure that it would have been possible to get an even yet better outcome -- there were a couple of objects I never used, and there were hints at a romantic subplot that I lacked the necessary skills to bring off.)

That said, the game definitely has a specific story it wants to tell. Though DHSGiT offers the player lots of choices, and though there are multiple ways the story and its subplots can turn out, the player mostly lacks significant choices. As a rule, conversations can end only two or three ways at most, and one outcome is often plainly superior to the others.

To make steering more challenging, you're offered a menu of conversation choices where each of your comments is represented by only two or three words -- which means that sometimes your avatar winds up saying something completely different, or significantly more nuanced, than what you thought you were selecting.

Along the same lines, the mini-games succeed or fail and failures are worked into the plot -- sometimes by giving the player a chance to achieve the same thing in a different way; sometimes by accepting a non-optimal outcome and moving on (not all subplots need to succeed for the main story to come out); and sometimes, especially late in the game, by ending the game in a loss. But it is not possible to play a mini-game in a way that signifies a choice about how you want things to come out; they are no more steerable than the conversation portions of the game.

Finally, the player is free to explore items in town in any order he wants, but in almost all cases it's necessary to explore everything thoroughly; even when that's not the case, it's rare for the player to know enough about what each encounter will bring to be able to choose to go one direction or another in order to achieve specific plot goals.

None of this is necessarily a bad design choice, but I found myself struggling a little at the outset to figure out on what level I was supposed to be engaging with the story. Once I accepted that I was mainly going to be driving it via my successes or failures, I could relax a little and go where the narrative wanted to take me.

It's also tempting to suggest that DHSGiT would be a stronger, more balanced, more narratively compelling game if it maintained a more uniform distribution of plot twists from beginning to end. Jess over at JayIsGames comments:

"Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble does have its issues. Most prominently, it seemed to me that about 60% of the story was compressed into the last 20% of the game; the revelations come fast and furious, and at times can become mind-boggling."

But I'm not sure that greater uniformity would have made the overall experience better. What makes the later stages of DHSGiT effective is our famiiarity with the town, our investment in certain characters (whom we've rescued repeatedly) -- and the fact that we've come to take the nature of its problems and corruption a bit for granted.

During the mid-game, the storytelling approach of DHSGiT is a little reminiscent of the Tradewinds games -- lots of small but linked missions for different characters, focus on humor and setting -- but with more freedom for the player.

By the end, though, it has become something substantially more powerful, because the story introduces more serious problems and because the play becomes more difficult to match. In more traditional media, the structure of DHSGiT reminded me most of a season of a Joss Whedon show: it starts off light and episodic, but by the time you get to May it's all angst and cliff-hangers.

No matter where you come in, a few hours of play have a certain thematic unity that raises DHSGiT above the average. At every level, through all its metaphors of interaction, DHSGiT is about the games we play socially: about hypocrisy, dishonesty, manipulation, double meaning. If it sometimes feels difficult really to know the characters in its story, maybe that's intentional.

There were some choices along the way that I might not have made myself -- about player interaction, about how many goofy/fantasy elements to allow into the story, about how to handle the moral message. But the overall project is daring and novel, and it does essentially work.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]