IF Competition: Grief

Another IF Comp review, following my format for this comp. There is a cut, then any spoiler-free comments I have, and then spoiler space, and then more detailed feedback that assumes the reader has tried the game.

But first, we have some obligatory filler to try to make sure that the RSS summary does not accidentally contain any review. Filler, filler, la la la…

Okay. Here we go.

I am not crazy about this one. It reminds me of Photopia — with the imagery and the cool puzzle and the Cadre-quality writing juiced out, leaving a stringy pulp of manipulative plot device.

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As far as I can see on a couple of playings, no matter what you do, Thomas dies. This isn’t because circumstances force the same event to happen no matter what; it’s because (much less compellingly), even if you avoid one fatal accident, Thomas will somehow meet with another. The accidents are sometimes very unlikely. Causality is totally out the window here.

And without causality, we don’t really have a story. The message of replaying this is that the universe is dumping on me arbitrarily and repeatedly. What happened? Did I anger some deity? Is there a reason things have to be like this?

The ABOUT notes hint that I might be missing a “final ending”. I am not sure whether the final ending is happy or sad, but I’ve tried several solutions and I’m not finding anything that saves Thomas. On the contrary, I’m finding that it looks more and more like I can’t save him. And despite the game’s best efforts to compel me, I don’t much care: the writing is too bland, the characters too uncharacterized.

I have a sneaking suspicion (which might be wrong) that at some point we’re supposed to “wake up” and realize that Thomas is already dead and that all these different scenarios are dream/madness attempts to rationalize his death or imagine our way to some alternative outcome. This would certainly make sense of the otherwise inexplicably relentless behavior of Fate — but if this outcome exists, I couldn’t find a way to trigger it. If that is the intended meaning of all this, though, I’m not sure how well it works. Even games meant to have a message or teach about a widespread human experience (I’m thinking of “Jane”, “Urban Conflict”, and some of the anti-war games that have come out over the years) pack much more punch if they use well-characterized individuals to make their points.

14 thoughts on “IF Competition: Grief

  1. **SPOILERS**

    Your suspicion is correct. You get there by picking up the toys and telling Thomas to hide under your desk. Of course, this ending is just as “meh” as the rest.

  2. Hmm. I don’t really have a problem with a story-game that breaks on replaying, in which events happen regardless of what you do… so long as there’s a story there to go with! But this one tells us explicitly to replay, which makes it more like a game than a story – and a game without clear rules is likely to be frustrating.

    At any rate, I was quite surprised when the game stopped. I’d assumed from the title they’d be less before and more after.

  3. I don’t really have a problem with a story-game that breaks on replaying, in which events happen regardless of what you do… so long as there’s a story there to go with! But this one tells us explicitly to replay…

    Yes, exactly: I was expecting something that would come together into a coherent meaning through multiple playings. And I suppose it might have, sorta, if I’d gotten the ending that Xocolotl says is there, but I lost faith before I got there.

  4. I liked Photopia. I did not like Grief. I felt very powerless and manipulated without really caring enough about the characters to keep playing. Uhg.

  5. I got the “real” ending, and I think I have an idea of what the author was trying for (spoilers ahead). The ending text says something about being unable to prevent Thomas’s death even when you kept your eye on him the whole time, and accepting this. Unfortunately, the first ending I got was the one where he is killed while driving home from school with me, so he in fact died while in my care. Whereas in the “real” ending there is no car accident even though I drive him home; very capricious. Things might have worked a little bit better if all of the alternative endings involved him dying because of lack of my supervision.

    But I still don’t think I would have liked the game very much. First, I never felt a real emotional connection to Thomas; I was told several times how important he was to me, but this wasn’t very effective. Second, the actual game-play wasn’t very interesting. These are two things that I though Photopia did well; you saw the potential that was being lost which made the ending more compelling (even if it was still manipulative), and I enjoyed actually playing the game (one of the puzzles, for instance, has been much discussed in its own right).

    I think both of these things are necessary for a game without any real player agency, and they weren’t here.

  6. I think it’s very telling about the overall quality of Grief that I put down in my notes “Should have been subtitled ‘An Interactive Guilt Trip’.” (“Child Murder Simulator” was another alternate title, though none of the end scenarios count as murder in the legal sense of the word.)

  7. If you had that suspicion at the end, why didn’t you spend a minute to look at the walkthrough and see that the ‘final’ ending is there? Do you have a no-walkthrough-looking-at rule?

    I didn’t find the game to be that bad. It’s the experience of a person who is dealing with his grief by trying to re-live the past and find ways he could have done things differently. In the end he finally accepts that the past is the past and there is no way to change it and he just needs to move on.

    I didn’t find it manipulative at all, as in it’s not trying to make the player *feel* sad or guilty or feel anything really, it’s simply saying, look at this, this is what being in this situation is like. This is what a person in this situation does. (And having been in a similar situation in the past I can tell you that yes, it is more or less something like that.)

    Still, I agree that the whole thing would have been much stronger with better writing, better atmosphere and better characterizations.

  8. If you had that suspicion at the end, why didn’t you spend a minute to look at the walkthrough and see that the ‘final’ ending is there? Do you have a no-walkthrough-looking-at rule?

    No, I don’t. But I tend not to go to the walkthrough in cases where I’ve lost my faith in the game, and by the point where I stopped replaying “Grief”, I had gotten exasperated with what I felt were ludicrous and unfair versions of the scenario. (Most kids that age aren’t quite dumb enough to drink a whole bottle of cleaning fluid for fun; and despite the news, the actual incidence of children being abducted by strangers is very very low; and how likely is it that all these things would pile up together…?)

    I think basically that Jon is right in his analysis of the problem here. “Grief” presents itself structurally as a game that can be won, so the player tries to do that, but it isn’t fair as a game. That might be okay anyway — as a piece whose moral is that life isn’t fair and not everything can be fixed — but it would need to be better written, so that it had something to offer as a story even as the player realizes that the scenario cannot be “solved”.

    There are some structural choices that might have helped as well: several existing IF games that are meant to be replayed to a “final” ending arrange this by automatically starting over when you get one of the non-final endings, or otherwise dressing up the “restart” process to make it clear to the player that the unsuccessful run-throughs are really just parts of an ongoing whole.

    I didn’t find it manipulative at all, as in it’s not trying to make the player *feel* sad or guilty or feel anything really

    Hm. I didn’t feel guilty. I did feel that I was meant to feel sad, but that just being told that Thomas is a terrific kid did not generate those emotions for me.

  9. Hm, good points, I agree.

    I think I was lucky enough to happen upon pretty much every ending including the “final” one pretty quickly and painlessly, so I got a little dazzled over the “twist” when it came. Looking back on it, it definitely needs a lot of improvements, of the type you describe.

  10. I did not like this game. Photopia is on another planet. Grief is an ambitious game without emotions and with poor characters and a poor story. And the “restart” and “restore” tricks are non-sense here.

  11. I read the many death scenarios as a reflection of the PC’s guilt, which makes him/her unable to reimagine the fateful day without something even worse happening, rather than as things we’re meant to find physically plausible.

  12. I read the many death scenarios as a reflection of the PC’s guilt, which makes him/her unable to reimagine the fateful day without something even worse happening…

    Yeah, that’s entirely possible, but then the player can approach the situation in one of two ways:

    1) does not realize that this is all retrospective (despite the odd sequence at the beginning) and tries to solve the puzzle of solving the son, only to get annoyed that the puzzle is completely unfair;

    2) *does* realize what is going on, so doesn’t want to keep trying to solve the unsolvable, but has no way to communicate to the game that he gets it already. Instead, can only make progress by continuing to play through doomed scenarios hoping one will be enlightening.

    Maybe I’m overthinking this, though.

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