Choice: Texas (Carly Kocurek, Allyson Whipple, Grace Jennings); The Spare Set (Rob Sherman)

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Choice: Texas is a game about options for women in Texas who are facing unwanted or problematic pregnancies. It’s carefully researched and non-generic: there’s lots of information about costs, complications that apply to different situations, the rules for open and closed adoptions, the legal requirements that determine access to abortion, and quite a bit else.

There are five different protagonists, each with her own unique and branchy tale: a Hispanic mother who already has three children, a career-oriented black woman who faces a loss of opportunities at work if she stays pregnant, a teenager whose parents are anything but supportive, a victim of sexual assault, and a woman whose planned and longed-for pregnancy has turned up serious fetal abnormalities. Some of these characters have loving partners and good health care options. Some don’t, so much.

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Assorted Projects

Boon Hill

Boon Hill is a successful-but-still-in-progress Kickstarter for a project in which the player/reader explores a graveyard full of epitaphs. It’s an invitation to create your own meaning out of scraps of evidence, conceptually a little reminiscent of 18 Cadence.

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Conversations With My Mother is a Twine piece by Merritt Kopas, in which you can click on the text to swap one piece of text for another before proceeding. It’s powerful and very brief to experience, and it does some things with Twine that go beyond typical formal features of choice-based narrative. Worth a look.

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Pipe Trouble is one of those pipe-laying puzzle games… except that it’s also about the politics of gas pipelines in Canada. Connect the pipes in the wrong way and you’ll annoy farmers, cause spills, or irritate environmental protesters. And it has text by Jim Munroe.

CIA: Operation Ajax

CIA: Operation Ajax is an enhanced graphic novel about the 1953 coup d’état in Iran, engineered by the CIA and British intervention.

The story is compellingly told, with the clear intent of both teaching the reader something and establishing a particular attitude towards what happened. CIA: Operation Ajax works to establish its credibility. It is thorough — it runs about a dozen chapters and took me multiple hours to read; this is not a brief pamphlet, and to lay out a story about 1953 it starts with originating events in 1908 and works its way forward. There are also a number of supporting documents that are embedded in the story or accessible through supporting menus. In some panels, a star appears — a kind of visual footnote marker, which will bring up citations or background articles for claims that the story is making. And yet this is also not a documentary. The choice of dialogue, the manner of drawing, the narrator’s plainly expressed horror and regret about what happened, all convey an unmistakable attitude towards events, and the final chapter drives home the point that the effect of American intervention was to destroy a democratic government and create significant future problems in the region.

The production values are extremely impressive, and it makes the most of the idea of a computer-aided comic format: panels slide in and out of frame, speech bubbles pop up and disappear, characters shift positions; but the comic book metaphor never drops away entirely, and the screens never cross the line into the territory of animated movie. The only exception is that old newsreels are embedded at intervals, documenting events such as the arrival of Mossadegh in New York to speak to the UN. There are no voiceovers, but background sound effects and music do a great job of establishing mood. I would suggest being sure to read with headphones or somewhere where you can afford to leave the sound up.

By the standard of most things I review on this blog, CIA: Operation Ajax is only very barely interactive at all. You can tap to advance the story; you can tap stars or look through the character roster to bring up supporting evidence. The affordances are roughly equivalent to turning pages or flipping to a set of end-notes in a conventional book — and if accessing notes is less annoying in this format than it would be on paper, conversely you’ll be tapping to advance many more times than you would turn pages under ordinary circumstances, just because of how many different frames there are. There’s too little connection between reader actions and story events to establish a sense of complicity in what’s happening, much less to leverage some of the more difficult and complex player/story relationships we see in interactive narrative. So I’m not convinced by some of the more breathless blurb-writing about how it represents a revolution in interactive storytelling. What it does do is present a fairly uninteractive story in a very memorable and compelling form.

Several Interesting Projects

The Silver Tree is a new, Kickstarted project by the Failbetter people: it’s to be short and self-contained, and explore what happened to the 13th century Mongol city of Karakorum in the universe of Fallen London. Since I remain hugely fond of the Fallen London/Echo Bazaar universe and lore, I’m excited about getting a peek in at another piece of it, this time in a slightly more focused gameplay form. The project site has some preview art and an interview with Yazmeen Khan, who is doing the writing.

I not-very-secretly hope this represents a successful approach for Failbetter, as I am not crazy about the way Fallen London generates revenue (make gameplay grindy, then charge players micro-amounts to make it go faster). I would much rather see stories funded through direct purchase and/or prefunding. It’s been a very successful campaign, which is encouraging. Also, they’re offering one of my all time favorite types of backer reward, a deck of custom cards. I am a total sucker for those for some reason.

Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” is a stop-motion musical adventure by Deirdra Kiai (The Play, Life Flashes By, assorted other projects). The whole concept is pleasingly off the beaten path.

Finally, if you’re interested in what Chris Crawford is doing these days, he also has a project on Kickstarter, a Balance of the Planet simulator that asks you to set tax prices for various types of pollution and then calculates a final score based on 58 years of result. It’s a curiously uninteractive experience, in that you set some sliders and then wait to see what happens (or, alternatively, read through the many pages of explanatory articles on different environmental factors).

Chris’ own description suggests that this is meant to be a forensic experience: run the simulator, then stare at the graphs to work out what went wrong, then try again. And you can, indeed, backtrack a bit through the graphs, breaking them down into components and checking out the things that contributed to those components and so on, in a way that is much more in-your-face about numbers than, say, Electrocity or some of the other educational or persuasive energy-policy games I’ve looked at in the past: it’s trying to make the argument quantitatively and crunchily.

And it’s quite hard to get things to balance, so I come away thinking, “hrm, we’re all dooooomed,” not “here’s how to save the planet.” (Except that I also don’t buy some of the game’s premises, such as the baked-in assumption that whatever taxes we set in year 1 we then cannot change at all for the next decades, other than to phase them in gradually.)

All that said, I like the concept of mathematically rigorous simulations to teach these problems; I also like the implication that the player will be able to experiment with different assumptions about the world model. I do wish that there were a more appealing front end and that the challenges were taught gradually, however.

“maybe make some change”

Aaron Reed’s “maybe make some change” is a more polished, web-accessible release of the work that premiered at the IF Demo Fair as “what if im the bad guy”. Aaron is releasing it today on the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. (Edited to add: there’s an authorial perspective on this piece here.)

When “what if im the bad guy” was presented at the IF Demo Fair, I didn’t get through it: the game play required putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier, committing violent acts and in some cases typing racial epithets. (At least, as I recall this was unavoidable, but I obviously don’t have access to that version to double check again.) This was just too uncomfortable for me to do in public, and possibly at all, so I put the game aside.

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Chevron’s Advice About Energy

I’ve written before about Electrocity, a charming game about energy sources. It’s by a New Zealand energy company and has some discernible biases and local priorities, but it’s actually a fairly entertaining game with decent gameplay.

Energyville is a very similar game by Chevron, which was immediately enough to raise my eyebrows.

It’s also much less effective as a bit of persuasive gaming. Instead of having dozens of turns in which to watch your city grow and change, you have two: one where you can establish your city’s power sources for 2015, and another where you set a few things in motion for 2030. Each power source, from biofuel to nuclear energy, has results measured in three axes: cost, environmental impact, and threat to national security. (Electrocity doesn’t deal with security implications at all.)

Bolstering the educational side of Energyville, you’re allowed to click through for more information on energy resources, and these are generally provided by fairly substantial quotes from policy papers and studies. (This aspect of the game is more aimed at adults than at kids, I think — there are a lot of hard numbers, which I appreciate, but suspect would make younger users glaze over a little. I don’t know enough about energy politics to be able to assess what sorts of think tanks the quotes are coming from.)

There’s a little bit of randomness in the game, because after each turn you’re dealt a couple of world events cards, which could be things like terrorist activity that drives up the cost of oil, the discovery of new technologies that make some energy sources more efficient, droughts that undercut the value of hydroelectric dams, or legislation that forces car companies to construct flex-fuel cars. That’s a nice touch: it reinforces the idea that it’s hard to do completely definite long-term planning on these topics, and it introduces some replayability.

Energyville lacks the visceral feedback of Electrocity on the environmental front. In Electrocity, your pretty little model city becomes visibly uglier if you choose polluting resources and cut down forests. Energyville abstracts all that away into a meter that swings to and fro to indicate how bad things are getting. It’s much easier to ignore that meter.

Another interesting touch is that you’re not allowed to establish your city without any petroleum resources at all. Try to build one without a big oil rig off the coast, and you just won’t be allowed to move forward, on the grounds that your planes and cars require that oil. How convenient for Chevron.

The thing is, I do understand what they’re trying to say. Right now, it is implausible to shut off our use of petroleum completely. But their game states that rather than demonstrating it — a persuasive game failure. It would be much more effective to let me go forward without such a rig, and then watch my city descend into gridlock and rioting.