Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

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The 17 IF games of Spring Thing 2016 are now available! This is a huge crop: historically Spring Thing has tended to have entry numbers in the single digits. I’m delighted to see it, because I think it’s useful having other events that at least somewhat rival IF Comp in size and attention. The trend towards diversity continues as well: there are a mix of Twine and Inform games, but also Ren’Py, a homebrew HTML/javascript game, and a pen-and-paper RPG submission.

So far I’ve had time to look at Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff.

Standoff is the aforementioned pen-and-paper RPG, so when I say “I’ve had time to look at,” I mean I’ve only had a chance to read the rules, not to actually give it a try with friends. It’s a game of antagonism between two major characters, and its ruleset struck me as drawing from similar ideas as both Microscope (you do set-up with index cards, and you have participants declare elements that they do or do not want to include in their collaborative story) and Polaris (in that one of the central storytelling mechanics has to do with negotiating negative repercussions for your antagonist).

The ruleset did feel a little unfinished to me, though: there are a few elements that aren’t explained in much detail. (Where do minions come from, and how are they resolved? What are we actually supposed to be doing with the index cards? Why is it important that the GM not tell the players the italicized text?) I also wouldn’t have minded some worked examples of gameplay.

Evita Sempai is a Twine story about an Argentinian woman who fixates throughout her life on Eva Perón. Politically-informed Argentinian lesbian fiction is not exactly a crowded field in my experience. My knowledge of Eva Perón’s life draws almost entirely on the musical Evita, which I realize might not be the most reliable source. In the context of this story, though, she’s a figure of compassion and a source of help when there are few others available in the protagonist’s life.

At times I struggled to connect with this character other than in the broadest, most abstract sense, perhaps because I lack the necessary background: I’m not familiar with, say, traditions about clothing in 1940s Argentina, so when the protagonist’s sister cycles through certain garments, this doesn’t signal very much to me. It might have helped me to have either a bit more detail, or a bit more context for the details that are present; others may feel differently. Still, in its general outlines this is not a story I have heard in IF form (or, really, at all) before.

Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony is a parser game about an experience of mania in which the protagonist thinks of everything as a text adventure, in which internet technology and mystical crystal powers are converging to bring about some marvelous future age, and the barista at the coffee shop is his soulmate (though only one of several). The following is a pretty typical sample:

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In gameplay terms, it uses the world model fairly lightly: the environments aren’t always that rigorously simulated, but especially at the outset the game very heavily clues your next move. By the time it stops doing this, you’ve probably more or less internalized the rules about what will work in this story model. You can traverse the map, you can take or buy or use (or sometimes “bind”) objects, and you can do one-off actions strongly clued by context; most other behavior doesn’t work. And throughout the game, there’s always a GOALS command that will indicate where further content is currently available, or what the protagonist currently feels an urge to do.

While the result never exactly feels like typical parser gameplay, Harmonic lets you visit lots of locations in whatever order you choose, stringing events together in a playfully arbitrary fashion. There are puzzles, but often there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, and the correct answers often depend more on some kind of metaphorical conclusion than on any plausible physical interaction. The pace of action is also unusual: actions often consume entire days, and a single command often results in a page full of text.

Sometimes the story even narrates things that don’t seem to be borne out by the world model. For instance, at one point I’m told that I spend a few more minutes in a store before leaving to go to the dock — but when the narration ends, I’m still physically located in the store. Or there’s a day timer that frequently tells us it’s midnight of day 63 (or whatever), but room descriptions don’t change to reflect the time of day. But so much of what is happening is imaginary that this feels less like a bug than just a quirk of narration or yet another case where the protagonist’s experience is peeling apart from reality.

In short, then, Harmonic does a lot of things that I would typically consider annoying design, bad writing, or dodgy implementation: telling the player what to do a lot of the time, making the protagonist do things that the player didn’t explicitly ask for, stringing together events arbitrarily, leaving some scenery unimplemented, referring to people and events as though they’ve been previously introduced when they haven’t, relying on the USE verb a lot, shifting between different conversation mechanics for different NPCs, leaving room exits out of the description until it decides the time is right, repeatedly and aggressively breaking the fourth wall, introducing detailed timekeeping and money systems that then seem not to matter at all. And yet this all works, because it all contributes to a mechanical expression of the protagonist’s very unusual mindstate. The protagonist doesn’t feel like he has full agency over his life. His sense of time and causality are disrupted. In his universe, it does sort of feel like a party can be caused by his putting on a costume.

From elements I ran into near the end, I think this game might have originally been meant for the Imaginary Game Jam. I’m also not sure how seriously to take the author’s claim to have experienced this level of drug and/or mania-induced detachment from reality.

However, if this isn’t built on actual experience, it’s a reasonably compelling simulacrum. I found Harmonic surprisingly successful, coherent, and enjoyable. At some level I’m aware that this is a story about a guy who wanders around town hassling baristas with stories about the Cosmic Wheel, but it’s also a story about someone who wants to share his vision of a harmonious universe inhabited by tremendous beauty, purpose, and love. If this is expressed through the figure of time-traveling aliens delivering space pancakes to farmers in the 1950s, so be it.

2 thoughts on “Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai, Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, and Standoff

    • It wasn’t actually supposed to be up yet! Thanks to something screwed up with WordPress (possibly user error, admittedly) the post date got set to April 2015 and thus accidentally posted prematurely and before I’d finished some edits… and of course that meant WP automatically sent tweets and so on. It will come out for real in a few days. Sorry!

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