January 21, 2009 12:00 PM |
['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive 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 Summer Session, a teen summer school PC casual simulation/story game by Hanako Games in collaboration with Tycoon Games.]
PC casual game title Summer Session is a dating simulation implemented in Ren'Py. That means that it belongs to a long tradition of Japanese dating sims, but is quite unlike anything in the U.S. casual or hardcore markets: it deals with the management of time and resources, certainly, but the chief goal is to connect with one or more of the girls you encounter.
Game-play in Summer Session consists of two kinds of interaction. One is pure resource-management: you set up your schedule, a week at a time, to determine what you'll do each afternoon. You're allowed one activity per day. Activities adjust your stats: studying makes you smarter but less cool, exercising makes you stronger, and so on.
In this respect, Summer Session is a lot like Kudos, only quicker to play through, and without the mini-games associated with some tasks. Also as in Kudos, you can go to the mall on weekends and stock up on objects that improve your stats or make your life easier somehow.
Unlike Kudos, though, Summer Session also allows you some direct conversation with your friends and potential girlfriends. These interactions can directly influence how people feel about you; the key is usually to demonstrate that you've been paying attention to the characterization by discussing topics that interest the person you're talking to.
In practice, I found Summer Session hugely more appealing than Kudos. For one thing, characters are presented as distinct individuals, and their interactions with you aren't purely dependent on their assessment of how cool you are. For another, the scope of Summer Session is more modest and the days play through faster, so that the experience is proportionally more story-content and less busywork.
Speaking of story, though: the first few times you play Summer Session, you probably won't experience much of a narrative arc. Instead, you'll bumble around trying to impress everyone (or even just a chosen girl or two); fail to do so; and possibly even fail the biology class that you're there to take. It'll feel like a somewhat aimless summer full of social near-misses, but no particular cohesion -- a lot like real life, as seen without the organizing structure of fiction.
Those near-misses guide replay -- not only replay to win, but replay to produce a narrative.
There are many possible encounters with other characters that depend on being at the right place at the right time; having them go well requires that you also have the right statistical profile. Some girls are interested only in a boy who is cool, or smart, or wealthy. Usually it's only possible to achieve the right balance if you go in knowing more or less what a given girl is looking for, and when and where you can expect to find her.
Getting any one of these girls interested in you will require a number of encounters. I found (somewhat to my surprise) that despite its straightforward-seeming choice-based gameplay, Summer Session is actually pretty hard. Several of the girls require that you be proficient in more than one thing, and you also can't win the game if you slack off too much: passing the biology course is a prerequisite for any other form of success.
So a fair amount of work goes into any successful ending; and, of course, it helps to have already had a number of passes through the early dialogue portions, so that you can be sure to say the right things to people early on to make them like you.
The tight structure gives the game a bit of challenge and more replayability, but it also has a narrative value. A winning playthrough not only has more meaningful events than an unsuccessful one, it also has fewer extraneous events.
The design of the game is such that if the player is pursuing one particular girl using an effective strategy, he'll necessarily be skipping a bunch of activities that he doesn't have time for -- and he's therefore less likely to have his playthrough contaminated, as it were, by encounters that really only matter to a different narrative arc.
That's not an absolute guarantee that everything you do in a successful story arc will turn out to be relevant to the story, and there are some events that happen consistently on every playing or that are significant in multiple story versions. Nonetheless, there's a strong tendency for coherence to go along with winning.
That design feature is helped along by a bit of player psychology. The game allows you to go into "skip mode" when replaying, which speeds through dialogue passages that you've seen before. Extensive use of skip mode makes the more mundane parts of the game fade into the background even more.
The realistic, life-like one-day-at-a-time pacing of the first playthroughs gives way to a more story-oriented pacing, in which the many afternoons you spend uneventfully studying or working in the computer lab are allowed to blur together, and only the highlights of the story get extensive attention.
In other words, the experience of the game changes not only because the program generates different output, but also because the player (encouraged by the presentation style) perceives, processes, and weights similar output differently.
This is really pretty ingenious. There are quite a few games in which the story ends well if the player wins, badly if he fails; there are many others in which the player isn't really allowed to fail permanently. Overall, Summer Session is unusual in offering a simulation to the player if he loses, but a story if he wins.
That's not to say Summer Session has a flawless design. It can be frustrating, in particular, to replay thinking you've got a likely strategy to win with a new girl, only to have it fail towards the end. If you get almost-but-not-quite the right combination, you'll have to restart from scratch.
And then there are limits on the ambition of the stories; however well you do, you still wind up with a lightweight tale of adolescent infatuation. Several of the characters are basic stereotypes; it makes sense for gameplay reasons that they need to have a complementary set of behaviors and preferences, but sometimes it all feels a little too formal and formulaic.
Then again, some of the characters rise above their surroundings -- I particularly liked the prickly, insecure Midori. And I was satisfied after my ambition to chat up my teacher ended in rejection when I failed my end-of-term test. (I don't know whether she would have gone out with me if I'd passed. Maybe. But as it happens, the rejection seemed fitting, and probably wiser on her part, too.)
I've played a few other games by Hanako, and while most of them shared the Ren'Py engine and the Japanese-styled aesthetic of Summer Session, none quite hit this narrative sweet spot in the same way.
[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.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon