January 30, 2011 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 "Strange Rain," an interactive toy/instrument/story from Erik Loyer at Opertoon.]
"Strange Rain" is not really a game. It describes itself as an "instrument" and as a "story," and it might be fair also to call it a toy.
But none of its three modes of use really lend themselves to the goal-seeking, agency-driven experience of a game, though it uses Game Center and appears in the Game section of the iPhone app store.
In that respect it goes even further than Opertoon's previous app, "Ruben and Lullaby;" it reminded me more of Tale of Tales' "Vanitas," or Aya Karpinska's "Shadows Never Sleep." But it has more story than "Vanitas" and more procedural depth than "Shadows."
The first mode of interaction is "Wordless." Starting up "Strange Rain" brings up the image of a gray sky and raindrops falling out of it. Touch the screen and the raindrops fall towards your finger rather than evenly across the space. Twist your fingers, and the raindrops seem to spiral down towards you. If you play enough, in this mode, strange things start to happen.
The sky darkens, or changes color, or freezes entirely for a moment. Silhouettes of jets pass overhead. Each time you tap the screen, another note or two plays from a melody, letting you toy with the rhythm of the song. It's like reaching a kind of meditative state while playing with a broken old music box. There's a sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and separation from the ordinary flow of life.
Set the mode to "Whispers," and now the raindrops become words as they fall. Storm, squall, drench, wash, erode -- words to do with rain, certainly, but carrying some additional connotations.
In "Story" mode, you get a third layer, the thoughts of a man standing outside a hospital in the rain. Now the rain that falls is the rain falling on him; the raindrops turning into words represents the way he feels; and his disjointed and unhappy reflections appear on the screen in black or white script as you tap. Play long enough and you will begin to assemble an idea of who he is and why he is there.
Stories about the aftermath of car crashes are so prevalent in interactive literature that I regard new ones with the deepest suspicion. A post-traumatic coma makes a great excuse for disorganized thoughts and a fractured sense of time. Marie-Laure Ryan discusses this a bit in Avatars of Story: the way hypertext and related media do not lend themselves to organized plot, and tend instead to tell plotless stories. So in their own way, the interactive post-car-crash thought-wandering is a genre trope for a set of works that would like to pretend they're above genre.
The story of "Strange Rain" is much better than most such stories.
It is mercifully specific. The protagonist is a man who is looking after his sister and her kids after the accident left the sister in the hospital in traction. His sister recently led him to convert to Christianity, and now he is dealing with the input of church members whose view on life he still finds alien. At one point, he wonders if they may decide the car accident was a demonic act.
There's lots more like this, but it's tightly themed about the problem of making sense of things. Why did the accident happen? Why do the people in the story feel what they feel? Why does the protagonist feel what he feels?
The rain and the music provide a surprisingly effective interaction point for this story. They are expressive. Tap the screen quickly and the music becomes frantic, too fast for its natural rhythm, while the protagonist becomes agitated and tries to make a decision about whether to go inside. Stroke the screen slowly to uncover his deeper thoughts, and the music slows down, the melody coming apart into individual notes. We aren't interacting with the thoughts directly, but we are interacting with the man's trancelike state.
If there's anything that leaves me unsatisfied, it's my own desire to arrive at a definite endpoint.
It's very difficult to explore the story space intentionally. "Strange Rain" does provide an achievements system linked into GameCenter, and since most of the achievements are about how much of the story you've seen so far, this is a fairly effective way of mapping progress through the game's information. It even breaks down your exploration to tell you, for instance, whether you've yet seen 100% of the protagonist's thoughts about his aunt, his sister, or his spirituality. It's a bit mechanical, but I think it's better to have some sort of indicator rather than none.
The problem (if there's a problem) is that it's very hard to pursue these thoughts intentionally. When a thought appears on the screen, you can hold and drag your finger to elaborate on that thought, or tap again to bring up a new one; but once you've elaborated a specific thought to its end, it's not as though you can look for other related ideas.
The structure of "Strange Rain" adds to the sense of incompleteness because, while the story has endings of a sort, an ending flows right into playing again. So while the protagonist does reach some temporary conclusions about his state or at least about what he wants to do next, they are erased as quickly as they're discovered, and he returns to a state of suspension and doubt.
Still, I'm not sure the fault lies with the story in this case. It might say more about me and my desire to finish things and check them off a list. "Strange Rain" is so much about the lack of resolution that it seems perverse to complain that it doesn't ever wrap up into a tidy conclusion.
Either way, "Strange Rain" is an odd and memorable work. In combination with "Ruben and Lullaby," it puts Opertoon on my short list of indies doing provocative storytelling work at the edge of gaming.
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)
[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 also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]
Categories: Column: Homer In Silicon