Vespers, some years late

I’ve been meaning for a long time to play Jason Devlin’s “Vespers”, and today is the day I got around to it.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. From various references to it, I had thought it was going to be a game about moral choices in a Christian (or coherently anti-Christian) framework, when in fact it’s pretty theologically dubious; it’s perhaps better described as a horror story with morally-framed puzzle solutions.

But more after the cut.

To my surprise, what I found most interesting about Vespers was its construction, its success at arranging events and making characters take action; it has a lot of plot, but avoids the excessively linear feel of many high-plot-content games. The way it works is mostly neat sleight-of-hand:

The trigger: give the player something to do. (A nice, non-linear if simple puzzle solution goes here.) Just as he accomplishes it, ta da! There is a surprise coincidental plot event that moves things forward!

Variant trigger: put the coincidental plot event on a timer so that it happens just a few moves after the player solves the first puzzle, so it doesn’t feel so much like a cause/effect relationship, but the player doesn’t have much time to wonder, “So now what?”

Touchier, more dangerous variant of the trigger: have the trigger be the result of the player exploring or discovering something, so the plot event happens only when the player has learned some needed exposition. The problem is that the player doesn’t always know what he’s supposed to look at (this is problematic even in such generally well-constructed games as Shade). Vespers gets by in part by having a great deal of focus — there are surprisingly *few* things here — so that it’s usually pretty clear what we’re supposed to be looking at. And some of the time we’re explicitly sent off on expeditions to find out what happened to X or Y.

The geography force: give the player something to do. Make sure that he can’t get to the puzzle solution without stumbling across a character/thing that creates a scene or provides exposition.

The sleep force: give the player an urge (the need to eat or sleep, typically) which must be fulfilled fairly soon and which provides a natural reason for time to ratchet forward, bringing new plot into view.

Vespers hardly invented any of these, but it uses them to good effect. The player always feels like he has a specific goal, but rarely (as far as I saw) like the game was nudging him to do a specific action — which is the point where linearity really takes over. The characters help with this, because their conversation often suggests new directions of exploration without the game having to be too explicit. The multiple puzzle solutions also help, because they provide a sense of openness and choice (even though in many respects the game is fairly constricted).

In other respects, Vespers overplays its hand. The madness, gore, and isolation would have been more effective if they had been less pervasive; if there had been moments where the player dared to like the other characters more, and to have more hope about the outcome. As to the theology, I’m not going to take it on, because the about text more or less instructs the player not to try to take that seriously. So, well, fair enough. Even with those caveats, though, this is an ingenious piece of work, and deserves study from people interested in IF plot construction.

5 thoughts on “Vespers, some years late

  1. I’m glad you got to play it; I’ve been wanting to hear your comments on it for some time. I agree that it does plot fairly well; conversation, on the other hand, is fairly standard and it would have been nice to see a little more devoted to the mechanics. I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on the multiple endings and how effective they are.

  2. conversation, on the other hand, is fairly standard and it would have been nice to see a little more devoted to the mechanics.

    Really? I mean, on the one hand, yes, Vespers doesn’t do anything breakaway here. On the other hand, I suspect a more complex conversation system would have produced a very different effect. The restriction to TALK TO and occasional variations makes the protagonist feel as though he has relatively little control over events, and the things he says can come as a surprise even to himself. For many — perhaps even most — games this is a negative effect, but it suits the lack of self-knowledge and the sense of fatality in Vespers. (For similar effective use of a very limiting conversation system, compare Shrapnel.)

    I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on the multiple endings and how effective they are.

    To be honest, I find the theological underpinnings of the endings sufficiently sketchy that it’s hard for me to evaluate them outside of that reaction.

    Vespers does an odd sort of caricature of Christianity and Catholicism in particular, so that while I was playing I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be trying to be following a religious agenda I brought to the game from outside (whether based on my own beliefs or my concept of how Catholic beliefs work), or just taking cues from the game. The game certainly is a bit heavy-handed at a few points, by refusing to let me pray in general or without a specific mission in mind, and then (late in the game) this is brought up as evidence of the degeneration of my character’s faith. So some aspects of the protagonist are essentially hardwired into the game by way of the parser and the puzzles I’m allowed to save; and I think the business about praying to Cecilia, similarly, is not so much about a test of your faith (either as the player or as a manipulator of the protagonist). It is, rather, a point at which the game invites you to make a guess about what the nature of the game is: Is it the kind where you have to take whatever missions and instructions you’re given? Or is it the kind where there is some degree of player agency and the player has a choice about whom to believe in?

    The first time I played, I was doubtful about Cecilia, so I saved and tried going to bed without praying to her — but I got assassinated in the night. So then I restored and did pray to her. It didn’t occur to me until later that I could have gotten past that section merely by means of the bar in front of the door.

    When, at the end, Cecilia taunted me about this and also pointed out that I had “tried to make a choice” and thus offended God, I thought — well, no, not so much.

    On the contrary, I had bowed to what felt like coercion from the game. I do see on replay that it’s possible to get past that section without praying to her, but I think this is a case where the challenge of the game — the fact that surviving the night is also a puzzle — obscures the choice aspect quite a bit. Players faced with a situation they’re repeatedly having trouble surviving are likely to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the solution, in the name of solving the puzzle.

    I could also see some players succumbing to the quotebox messages telling you to commit murder on the tower, too — so there again the game seems to be trying to distract the player from the possibility of meaningful choice, by using gaming conventions (pay attention to the interface! accept missions given to you by NPCs!) to coerce an “evil” action.

    In my case, the ending didn’t feel like a very satisfying evaluation of the choices I’d made in the game, because the one really significant piece of judgment open to me — do I take Cecilia at her word or not? — I’d been befuddled out of handling the way I originally wanted to. And I’d been very tempted earlier to commit the murder on the tower, simply because the game seemed to be offering me an interesting course of action where inaction was going to be less dramatically exciting.

    All that said: when you ask “are the multiple endings effective?” then I guess I would say, “effective at what?” What are they supposed to achieve? If the point of the game is to make the player feel the protagonist has been the victim of divine entrapment, then it makes perfect sense to provide a positive ending that can be reached on replay, but which is fairly unlikely to be what anyone encounters on a first playing.

    But here’s where we come back to my theological issues again. I do not see “do what God says because he says so (PS He is a real Jerk)” as a reasonable summary of Christianity, or a probable way for the world to work. This is more of a horror premise, in which, a la Lovecraft, there are arbitrarily-motivated superbeings who can save or crush us for their own amusement. So the fact that choice was unevenly implemented in the game and then misinterpreted by the endings seemed to fit in just fine with the philosophical cloudiness of the rest. And I’m aesthetically happiest with the game if I regard it as strict horror.

  3. There actually tend to be three solutions to the puzzles in the game–one where you pray to Cecilia (the easiest), one where you pray to the appropriate saint (very slightly harder, as you have to figure out which one will do the trick), and one where you figure out how to solve the puzzle yourself (the hardest, and, it must be said, the most satisfying if you manage it). While probably not the conscious choice of the authors, this structure basically promotes a humanistic philosophy as being better than both God and the Devil. Which I suppose supports your Lovecraftian analysis!

  4. Really? I mean, on the one hand, yes, Vespers doesn’t do anything breakaway here. On the other hand, I suspect a more complex conversation system would have produced a very different effect.

    True, although I didn’t mean to imply a significantly more complex system; only one that did a slightly more thorough job keeping track of game and character states, and handled repetitions a little more gracefully. Knowing Jason, I think it would probably have meant a bit more coding than he would be totally comfortable with (at least in I6), but I think it would have softened some of the rougher edges. For instance, in the church at the beginning of the game you can break the glass around St. Cuthbert, although Ignatius praying nearby pays no notice.

    All that said: when you ask “are the multiple endings effective?” then I guess I would say, “effective at what?”

    That point is well taken, and perhaps “effective” was not the best choice of words. Maybe it would be better to ask if the different endings (and the paths leading to them) were implemented in a satisfying way, which I can see is a tough question to answer because of the way the game interprets (or misinterprets) actions at different points in the game.

    I do feel that Jason’s intention was to make the player feel the protagonist has been the victim of divine entrapment, but perhaps it’s also fair to say that his intention was to make the player feel similarly. In that sense, the use of gaming conventions to coerce an “evil” action is maybe not that far removed from the way the protagonist is coerced into sinful actions; that is to say, sin is perhaps the easiest, most salient option (in terms of the game and the world of the protagonist), whereas virtuousness requires a more contemplative approach (again on both accounts).

  5. Pingback: Prospero (Bruno Dias); Writing with Raconteur | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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