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Column: Homer In Silicon

Column: Homer in Silicon: Darkened Hallways

July 25, 2011 9:00 PM |

[Gamasutra contributor Emily Short examines Loadingames' browser-based single-player RPG Misfortune, appreciating the game's structure and art but picking apart the many flaws in its writing and tone.]

Disclaimer: Misfortune is a browser-based RPG of sorts with limited action turns per day. It falls into the same general market as Echo Bazaar, for which I have done some writing work. I received some free mission credits in order to enable me to write this column.

Remember Wizardry? Long hallways, wandering monsters, the occasional trap or treasure. Spells with names like cocktails: the Mahalito, the Dalto.

Misfortune takes you back there. The player has "mission credits", which refresh over time. It costs one mission credit to accept a quest at the local pub. Accepting a quest sends you off into an algorithmically generated, square-cornered map of passageways, gates, and secret doors which bears a strong resemblance to old Wizardry maps, though the images are now in color and significantly larger.

Your task is to wander this space, knocking over barrels and searching rubbish piles looking for keys and loot-drops, and doing battle with the occasional wandering dog or ruffian who comes your way.

Fighting isn't a tactical, turn-based challenge but rather a matter of clicking on your opponent, and this is not inherently all that fun. In the higher levels of gameplay, fighting is more about self-healing than anything else -- you need to be healing yourself constantly during a fight and timing the heals to occur when they can do the most good. It's easy to be overwhelmed by attackers from behind or coming from one side, and to die before you have the chance to land a single blow.

Story elements occur through encounter dialogue boxes as the player travels the map. There are early hints of out-of-control automatons, a repressive royal regime, and possibly some sort of secret resistance at work. Certain story events give the player loot; others set qualities which advance gradually (In the course of playing, I had several encounters with an unfortunate man trying to court a woman named Shmolinda, for instance). A few special missions are unlocked by story progress, as well, so if you've spent enough time with your aunt, she may send you on a custom courier job, for instance.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Teacher's Pet

July 1, 2011 1:00 PM |

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['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 Christine Love's visual novel don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story.]

Don't Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain't Your Story has been out since April, and though it hasn't attracted quite the universal accolades of Digital: A Love Story, it's had lots of attention from lots of directions.

It's a quirky piece about the concept of privacy in the post-Facebook world; like Digital: A Love Story, it tells its story mostly through an adapted version of computer technology we're well familiar with already.

It's definitely worth playing; if you haven't played yet and would like to read a review, read one of those I just linked. Because what follows from here on is going to be a wholly spoiler-rich discussion of certain themes in the plot and the way they dovetail with Love's interaction choices.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Stood Up

April 12, 2011 12:00 PM |

DinnerDate.jpg['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 Dinner Date, a brief introspective piece by Stout Games.]

Dinner Date is a short atmospheric game about being stood up. No, not just about being stood up: about being a particular guy named Julian, living in a small European apartment, disliking his job and waiting for a girl to arrive. She doesn't.

There isn't exactly any challenge to the piece, and no goal to speak of, other than to pass the time as Julian and listen to the thoughts that go through his head.

In many respects Dinner Date resembles work by Tale of Tales, but it is more mundane, less ominous and allusive than any of their games. There are no mystical animals here, no blood. We see Julian's apartment in considerable detail: the food he's cooked, the loaf of bread, the Japanese calendar on the wall; the cigarettes he smokes and his brand of wine; the view from his apartment window, which is the view of other rooftops. The pleasure it offers is largely contemplative.

A few reviewers have remarked that Julian is not a very admirable person. I suppose that's true; he seems frustrated and negative, and he doesn't seem to have very strong or happy relationships with anyone. On the other hand, we all have thoughts inside our own skulls that we know better than to publish. I didn't find Julian intolerable, at least for the short duration of the game. On the contrary, I felt a little kinship for the utterly realistic way his thoughts jump from frustration with work to hunger to a half-remembered bit of poetry.

The game's framework tells us that we are playing as Julian's subconscious. What this means is that we are able to control his small gestures, such as taking a sip of wine or dipping some bread in sauce. We have no control over his inner monologue of conscious thoughts, or over his occasional more serious decisions.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Pride and Prejudice and Plot

March 31, 2011 12:00 AM |

51NenxlwXJL._SL500_AA300_.jpg['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 Reflexive Entertainment's Matches and Matrimony, a visual novel/dating sim based on the novels of Jane Austen.]

Matches and Matrimony takes the plot, characters, and banter of Pride and Prejudice, together with some borrowings from Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, and blends them into a Ren'Py dating sim.

These days, of course, you can get Pride and Prejudice remixed more ways than Coke at a soda fountain. Mr Darcy tells the story from his point of view. Elizabeth Bennet happens to meet Emma, for extra cross-over fun. Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr Darcy on a ship on the way to America, or as a Sheikh in the Algerian desert. Elizabeth Bennet solves murders. Elizabeth Bennet fights zombies. Mr Darcy turns out to be a vampire, more than once. Elizabeth and Darcy experience their first, second, third, Nth years of marriage. Charlotte Collins' daughters grow up.

And, of course, in the way of all fanfic, beloved side characters die, and Darcy and Elizabeth get it on, repeatedly and in lurid detail, including with variations where theirs is a gay romance or both of them have secondary lovers. And I have barely penetrated the thinnest surface of this genre. The search "pride and prejudice sequels" on Amazon delivers a mind-boggling 167 results; "pride and prejudice variations", 89 results.

That may not cover all the novels about Jane Austen herself as a character, or of course the modern remakes, and the movies, stage plays, musicals, television miniseries, and Marvel comics.

Consequently, there is a sweetness about how earnestly Matches and Matrimony takes its material. It uses a lot of original text, and its help files are all about reminding the player how the heroines of various novels acted and encouraging the player to emulate them. It's not trying to say something else through Austen; it's just doing the stories. It's like seeing a Shakespeare play where the director has had absolutely no funny ideas about arming the Capulets with parasols or making King Lear drive a vintage Rolls onstage: surprising.

The form of dating sim does introduce a few new demands -- namely, a choice of several suitors, and encouragement to replay. Often figuring out the right thing to do depends on being fairly familiar with the original stories, to the point where at least one player suggested the game might function as a helpful review for students.

The attempt doesn't completely work, for several reasons; and yet I had fun with it anyway.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Get Me Another Triple Soy Latte, Stat

February 16, 2011 12:00 AM |

MyLifeStory.png['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 GameFools' casual PC downloadable life simulator game My Life Story.]

I admit it: I have become oddly fascinated with life simulators. They're so similar in externals, and yet convey such wildly varying messages -- almost all of them creepy in some way.

The Sims famously frames a consumer life as one in which buying stuff makes your life better and better: a house full of purchased goods is a house that puts the characters in a good mood -- and one that offers the player a lot to play with.

Kudos frames objects as tools for self-improvement as the player tries to achieve a more exciting and well-paid existence. Life Quest offers a relatively even gradation of difficulty and changes the challenges through competition with the protagonist's acquaintances.

My Life Story has many of the same features: a combination of jobs and education, food and goods for the home. The player's challenge is to distribute her time between these items. But the flavor of the game is very different.

First, My Life Story largely avoids the question of relationships, either friendly or romantic. This keeps it from making those relationships too utilitarian, which often has an odd effect; but it does make the game feel a little bit lonely. The protagonist starts out as a recent high school graduate living in Mom's basement, but one of the earliest available goals is to move out of there, and afterwards there is little Mom has to offer to make it worth going home again. For the most part, the protagonist lives and works in a lonely way.

Column: Homer in Silicon: It Rains Because He's Sad

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.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Warped Structures

January 24, 2011 12:00 AM |

DateWarp.png['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 the Windows, Mac and Linux indie visual novel Date/Warp by Hanako Games.]

I have played "Date/Warp" something like twenty times today. This was about ten times too many. There's a lot to like about the game assuming you like visual novels at all -- it's very polished, well-drawn, and frequently funny, with distinctive characters and a coherent concept. There is much to be said for its content. But in terms of narrative structure, it had some issues.

We'll do the bad news -- about structure -- first, and save the good news for the second half.

"Date/Warp" is a game you have to play to two different endings with each of five possible romantic leads, and then one final time to see the Real True Final Ending that ties it all together. Each lead has a "bad" ending, where you sort of fall for each other but things don't work out, and a "good" ending, where you are together in some fashion.

This partly works, in fictive terms. Each romantic interest has his own angle on the mystery of what's going on. Each one has to be approached and understood, and the replaying means that by the time you do get to the final end, you will know the cast of characters quite intimately.

Structurally, "Date/Warp" is choose your own adventure with puzzles. At each decision point, you're presented with a pipe-style puzzle (though actually in this case they're wires). Solve the puzzle to wire up the choice you want to make, then click that choice. It adds a small element of challenge to the execution of a decision, and gives you a little longer to think over what you're doing. Moreover, the game lets you reselect any previously-solved choice without resolving the puzzle, so that in later playthroughs the puzzle becomes partly a record of which paths you've tried and which you haven't.

Column: Homer in Silicon: Featherlight Adventure

January 8, 2011 12:00 PM |

Scarlett.jpg['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 Scarlett and the Spark of Life, an iPhone graphical adventure from Launching Pad Games.]

"Scarlett and the Spark of Life" is the first episode of a multi-stage iPhone adventure offered by Launching Pad Games.

It's kind of adorable. The still art is charming, and if the animation is on the simple side, that fits the style of the game. The heroine is plucky and sarcastic. The dialogue is funny, and several times reminded me of Telltale Games (a good thing, in my book). Often there are three or four conversation options that are all joke variations on the same idea, so it's fun to read the text but it doesn't make much difference which you pick.

The puzzles are accessible and diverse, though they have the frankly contrived feel I associate with old-school graphical adventures: places where only one object will do even though others should be equally functional, where the key to a door can be found in a place it has no narrative reason to be, and where wild animals faithfully guard exits until bribed in just the right way.

The most egregious example is one that involves attaching an object to a part of an animal's anatomy that I wouldn't really have considered as, er, an attachment point. All the same, none of them stumped me for long, and many of them are helpfully clued by the non-player characters.

The interface is well designed for iPhone use, too. Some graphical adventures I've tried on the iPhone have been adapted from PCs. They wound up too fiddly and tiny, with pictures that were hard to view, hot spots that I couldn't hit accurately, etc. Scarlett and the Spark of Life scales everything down. Each screen has enough points of interest to make it feel interactive, but usually not more than four or five, well-spaced and with good hit reception. A button at the corner of the screen highlights those points.

This first episode takes only an hour or two to play, but I think that's about right for a phone game: it's not the kind of thing you want to sit in front of for four hours at a time. Structurally, it's an absolutely standard adventure-game type of format: a linear intro, a mid-game with several distinct puzzles to collect items, and a linear conclusion, which provides the rising pace.

Column: Homer in Silicon: The Ghost of Snarkiness Past

December 9, 2010 12:00 PM |

lfb_tn.png['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 Deirdra Kiai's Life Flashes By.]

Life Flashes By is a meditative conversational piece partly about art and artists. It talks about art for art's sake and art for a commercial audience; about genre and literary work; about traditional and interactive media. It especially talks about the different kinds of rewards the world offers to people who choose these different options, even though the animating vocation may not be much different at all.

The protagonist, Charlotte, is a writer of modestly successful literary novels. Midway through life, she finds herself lost in a dark wood. There she has an experience that owes perhaps a little to Dante and quite a lot to "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Guided by a -- ghost? spirit? angel? ...let's just say a short, winged person -- named Trevin, Charlotte revisits the scenes that made her who she is, from a childhood rejection of math to the argument that ended her marriage.

The character sketched by this retrospective is not entirely likable. She's bright but insecure, lonely but judgmental, repressed and closed to new experiences. Being hurt and rejected hasn't taught her to go gently with other people. Her talent is real, but it doesn't always make her or anyone else happy. She is committed to her craft, but writing is such a deeply necessary, gut-deep aspect of her that she doesn't view her hard work as inherently admirable, and the player is free to discount it similarly.

There are moments when we see other characters trying to reach out to her, befriend her, like her -- only to be rebuffed. Her husband doesn't want their marriage to end, but Charlotte calculates other people's feelings according to her own ruthless emotional arithmetic, and is unable to listen fully to what he's trying to say.

And at each moment we get to view a piece of the life Charlotte might have had if she'd chosen differently. If she'd gone on that vacation around the world instead of attending the exclusive creative writing program. If she hadn't met her husband. If, if, if.

She always ends up a storyteller, but not always the same kind, or in the same way.

She doesn't always end up lonely.

After I was done, I thought (a) that I had liked that quite a bit, and (b) that I wasn't quite sure why.

Column: Homer in Silicon: How Do I Get the Policy Wonk Sword?

November 22, 2010 12:00 AM |

['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 Lionhead's Fable 3.]

In the early hours of Fable 3, I was delighted to discover that the malicious Reaver was still around from Fable 2, and not just because I adore Stephen Fry's voice acting. It was mostly because his sinister presence added weight to the ending of the previous story: my need to compromise with an obviously evil ally had had lasting repercussions for Albion.

Alas, most of the rest of the Fable 3 moral experience wasn't nearly so satisfying.

I was most looking forward to, and most disappointed by, post-kingship portion of the game, in which the player's options are reduced to binary choices in civic planning, and it turns out that being nice to people all the time (or, in the game's terminology, "good") will leave Albion without the money necessary to defend itself from evil.

There are all sorts of problems with this portion, both thematically and from the perspective of gameplay.

Lionhead does have a theme in mind. Things get harder and less clear-cut when we come to power. Promises cost more to fulfill than we expected. People we regard as friends make unreasonable demands. There aren't enough resources to go around. We have to choose whom to favor and whom to annoy. The stakes are higher than we knew.

It's a valid point, unconvincingly made.