IF Comp 2013: Blood on the Heather (Tia Orisney)

Blood on the Heather is a choice-based game about vampires in Scotland, by the same author as the comp game Who Among Us.

Blood on the Heather is similar to Who Among Us in certain ways: it doesn’t bother with any typographical adjustments to the default Twine presentation, but it’s a big meaty story with lots and lots of prose, long passages between choice points, and occasional signs of proofreading trouble. Who Among Us is a mystery using a number of familiar tropes. Blood on the Heather is a vampire story with lots of gore and action. Its vampires are more like the ones in Blade than the ones in Twilight, though the long-running romance-feuds maybe owe something to Anne Rice as well. Or maybe to Angel/Darla/Drusilla/Spike.

In comparison with Who Among Us, though, Blood on the Heather has more work put into characterization. Who Among Us gives its protagonists only names based on their professional characteristics. Blood on the Heather creates a couple of friends of the protagonist who have their own quirks, as well as a suite of villains with a bunch of interpersonal backstory. There are also more funny moments in Blood on the Heather, and the high points of the writing are higher.

As for agency, the two pieces try more or less opposite tacks. Who Among Us is pretty linear for most of the game, with significant branching only near the end; on the other hand, it gives the protagonist a clear and consistent agenda. Blood on the Heather doubles down in the other direction, giving an early game option that massively branches everything that follows. The actual events that unfold aren’t very often under the player’s control, however. After that initial split, there are many choices that have unpredictable effects, and quite a few of them get the protagonist killed without warning.

Admittedly, the game usually lets you restart whatever chapter you were in, rather than going right back to the beginning of the game, so these false endings aren’t as annoying as they otherwise would have been. Nonetheless, I felt in BotH that my character was most often reacting to situations around her as they arose. She didn’t have a long-term plan. While her situation was dire, I didn’t feel as much tension as I might around her choices because it was seldom clear what those choices were going to mean in practice.

So even though the story of Blood on the Heather branches much more often, my sense of control as a player wasn’t much greater than in Who Among Us, and in some ways the interaction felt more arbitrary.

Overall, then, it’s a decent CYOA in a slightly goofy genre. It could have been substantially stronger given a less arbitrary approach to some of the options, combined with a serious edit to the prose. The passages between choices often ran long, which was especially undesirable when the story was otherwise trying for fast-paced action. There were long swathes of exposition. Sometimes the dialogue got repetitive, or was jokey when that wasn’t really appropriate. The whole often had the feel of text that had been written at speed and then not revisited very much. Cutting the prose substantially — to maybe half the length — would have had the useful effect of forcing the author to choose what images, events, and one-liners were good enough to keep, while improving the pacing.

Likewise, a lot of the middle portion of the story consists of characters telling the protagonist things about their particular stripe of vampirism, which has a number of special rules. I applaud the author’s decision to make up a custom vampire lore for this story, but the exposition would have been more palatable if it had been presented in smaller pieces.

Finally, despite top billing in the title, the game’s Scottish setting doesn’t seem to contribute much, other than some standing stones and a haggis joke.

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Blood on the Heather (Tia Orisney)

  1. > less arbitrary approach to some of the options
    Can you maybe give a couple of examples? It’s just that I liked BotH much more than Who Among Us, so probably overlooked these, but now am curious. Thank you!

    • This is slightly spoilery, but I felt that there were several consistent motivations in Who Among Us. We were trying to get into the basement, and basement-related options kept popping up. And we were trying to avoid being alone with someone we considered a likely murderer. Those were pretty consistent reasons to choose particular options as the story went on, and even though in practice the narrative didn’t branch that much, I consistently felt that there was some pressure on this.

      In Blood on the Heather, there were also high-stakes situations and I also didn’t want to get killed, but on the other hand there were a number of times when I felt it was really hard to tell from the lead-in text which choice was likely to be safest. I was repeatedly killed without warning because I’d selected the wrong one of several picks. And curiously, the greater *actual* risk that I would wind up dead produced a lower *sense* of tension when I was playing, because very soon I stopped expecting that I would be able to choose well or badly just by thinking about the choices I’d been offered, and started picking semi-randomly rather than agonizing even a little over the options.

      • Thank you for the clarification! Curiously, while in retrospect everything you say about the choice options sounds absolutely right, the actual *feeling* while reading was quite different for me. Would be interesting to see if it’s possible to pinpoint what caused it. Maybe it’s that the choice in BotH felt less of “what does the logic tell me to do now?” and more of “I’m this wacky and charming character, what do I do?” – roleplaying style. Probably as a consequence of having a well defined PC with certain opinions, interests, outlook on life, while the protagonist in WaU came across as pretty indifferent, and even the motive that brought him there didn’t seem to matter that much to him, at least we never were shown any emotion, not to the object of his search, not even to the guy who told him about the object (to keep it non-spoilery).
        Well, what probably didn’t hurt was that I like the slightly goofy horror genre (“John Dies at the End” is an old favourite), so maybe that’s the real reason here )

      • Yeah, just to be clear I liked Blood on the Heather slightly better of the two, but I thought it was interesting, since they were both by the same author, that they had different strengths (in my view).

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