IF Comp 2013: Robin & Orchid (Ryan Veeder and Emily Boegheim)

Robin & Orchid is a parser-based slice-of-life puzzle game about some kids hanging out in a church basement, looking for ghosts. It took me the full two hours to play, and could have taken longer had I not resorted to hints.

The basic premise here is that the protagonist Robin is a reporter for the high school newspaper, and she is assigned (sort of) to go with Orchid to stay overnight in Orchid’s church to investigate rumors of a ghost haunting the church building. She also has with her a notebook full of annotations from her editor, Casey, who also attends the same church. Casey’s notes are extremely extensive.

Comments I’ve seen on this game basically divide into two categories so far:

(1) “This is awesome!”

(2) “…Huh? There’s not really that much here, and where’s the story?”

As far as I can guess, what has happened to commenters in category 2 is that they didn’t look up all that much stuff in the notebook, because it is jam-packed. Most objects in the gameworld of Robin & Orchid, with a handful of critical exceptions, are not there to be manipulated by the player. They’re there to be looked up in the notebook: they’re hooks so that you can dig out stories. Stories about the church, stories about Orchid and Casey and their youth group leader and their friends, the games they play in the church building, the stuff they did when they were younger kids, hints of scandalettes and disagreements between the church adults, great drama concerning the Christmas pageant, etc. etc. etc. The stories layer together with what is going on in the church at the moment and create a pretty clear picture of the kinds of people you’re dealing with, and connect well with the present-moment mystery.

There aren’t quite so many stories in the book (that I found, anyway) about Robin herself, but Robin does nonetheless also have a definite personality: meticulous, rule-abiding, sometimes pedantic. It comes out in the way she interacts with other characters, but also with the way she treats all the church’s property, and the way all her internal narrative runs.

I really enjoyed these stories. I think, for certain people, because they’re about a group of mostly nice, sometimes earnest (but hardly flawless) Christian youth, they might read as saccharine in some way. But I found the anecdotes well-observed, neither over-sweet nor preachy.

Besides, they resonated very strongly with my own memories of my own church when I was young: the way the church building had funny rooms in the basement that are fascinating for kids, and the way that one room always had red and green glitter on the floor left over from Christmas arts and crafts projects; and the dumbwaiter you could use to send stuff to other floors; and that one really thin wall you could stand behind if you wanted to kind of eavesdrop on conversation in the parish hall — not that you ever heard anything important, but you’d just read Harriet the Spy; the big spray faucet in the parish kitchen that kids used in water fights if they could avoid being caught. My church also had a mural of long-haired Jesus with a multi-cultural spectrum of children, and a cupboard full of ratty toys, and a narthex with inspiring pamphlets that didn’t inspire me, and a rack of name tag pins for all the congregation members. Some of that stuff I haven’t thought about at all in years and years, and this game brought it all back.

So why is it that some people miss this? Why did I myself go for a while without using the notebook and feel like there was something wrong with the pacing?

I was going to suggest that the game should have started out by forcing you to use the notebook — and then I replayed the beginning and remembered that, oh yeah, it does. The opening scene is a pretty good little taster for the kinds of things you’re going to need to do later. I think the trick is that then the game stops reinforcing that mechanic in the early midgame, and instead gives you a set of explicit goals (photographing ghostly evidence) that encourage you to wander the basement and use your camera. With the focus on those activities, it’s easy to forget to look up props in the notebook and get out of the habit.

It is a meticulously crafted piece of work in other respects. It handles lots of technical things very elegantly indeed, including a built-in hint system that is part of the game, and also a walkthrough command that custom-tailors a piece of walkthrough to exactly where you are at that moment. It deals gracefully with parsing some object names that may not have been easy. The implementation is consistently smooth, high-quality in unobtrusive ways.

So at least in my opinion this is well worth playing; if you haven’t played yet, take my advice and look up every object you find. You’ll get much more of what the game is about.

One or two post-spoiler-space thoughts.

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As mentioned, I enjoyed how the individual characterizations emerge smoothly from the plot. I liked how my initial skepticism (“this must be a Scooby Doo plot“) gave way to surprise at the hovering-over-the-altar figure and a moment’s doubt over whether I’d misjudged the genre of the game I was playing; followed by skepticism again and more assured mystery-dismantling. Where things started to slightly unravel for me was the point at which I had to start stacking boxes. I had the right idea in mind, but I was mis-imagining the way the boxes could relate to one another, and kept putting the wrong things on top of each other, for a farcically longwinded PUT ARK ON ARK sequence, until I caved and checked the walkthrough.

I did, at the very end, kind of wish I were allowed to play Robin differently. What if I wanted her to take Orchid’s side, or, at the very least, not turn her in to the joyless Sharon? But there doesn’t seem to be any way to take that path: Robin has to be dutiful and Lawful Good, just as Orchid is deceptive and dramatic, and we’re not allowed to break those molds, or at least if there’s a way to do something other than go back to Sharon, I didn’t figure it out.

But I did feel that possibly Robin was missing out. We never hear quite why Robin decided not to go back to the church after she visited, other than a general suggestion that she’s simply atheist; and I was not quite sure whether to read between the lines that Casey was trying to get closer to Robin, but if so, Robin herself seems oblivious to it. It’s entirely fine to have a story about a not-always-so-empathetic protagonist, but I slightly wished I could have steered her a little.

My quibbles aside, though, I really did enjoy this quite a bit. There were a couple of stories I wished to get to the bottom of — what did happen with the guitar-playing college girl? Did she get pregnant or start taking a lot of drugs or have an affair with a church member? How about the pre-Patrick youth group leader, whose name apparently cannot be spoken? What happened there? And I also never found part 2 of 4 in the great Christmas Pageant narrative.

Maybe Veeder and Boegheim will release the source.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Robin & Orchid (Ryan Veeder and Emily Boegheim)

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2013 Roundup | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Oh, the box-stacking thing was supposed to be solveable? I gave it up “temporarily” and went to try the trapdoor first, which speedily brought me to endgame without ever getting back to the boxes. I suppose the container only had more ectoplasm in it or something, though.

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