The Magic Circle (Question)

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If that’s hard to read, here are the first couple of sentences:

The gods of this world don’t know you, boss. But they’re scared of what you might do. They have to treat you like some reptile with a credit card, who can’t stay awake without watching something die…

The Magic Circle is a first-person puzzle game that recently left Early Access for full release on Steam. The premise is that Ish Gilder, a game designer with a massive cult following, has been trying for decades to follow up on his early text adventure success. He’s been promising exotic features for the sequel with Molyneuxian abandon, and he’s held something like five separate crowdfunding campaigns, but the game never quite comes together. In fact, a nearly launch-ready version gets totally scrubbed at one point, a complete space-station setting buried in favor of something more fantasy-oriented.

There’s a whole website dedicated to documenting the sad history of the game development.

(Disclosure: I received a free review key for this game.)

You play as a tester who has gotten access to this desperately broken thing, and you’re trying to get it to function for you. Early on you meet the Old Pro, a self-aware AI of the protagonist who has been waiting all these years for his game to be released so that he can get out into the world. (How exactly he came to be a self-aware AI is not deeply explored and neither are the ethics of releasing him.) You don’t have a sword because Ish has decided late in the process to remove combat, but you do have access to debug tools that allow you to meddle with the flags controlling NPC behavior. When you’ve learned about a skill from one NPC, you can apply it to others.

You thus spend the bulk of the game play time — I’d estimate about four and a half hours for me — exploring both the space and the fantasy areas of the game, which are linked, and solving puzzles in order to get close enough to creatures to yank their skills out of their bodies.

This is an elegantly designed puzzle space: consistent and comprehensible mechanics, lots of fun bits where you can combine different character skills to produce useful or funny or horrifying results, and a non-linear design that lets you tackle problems in the order of your choosing. It is possible to find solutions the devs didn’t specifically anticipate. I did once waste a lot of time trying to solve an enemy, the Securitron, because I hadn’t yet picked up the skills that would have made it easy to kill, but eventually I remembered that I had other options and went off to try something else first. Most of the time I was challenged enough to have to give situations a bit of thought or experimentation, but not all the way to stuck, which is what you want.

Lots of nice work has also gone into making an easily navigable map with clear signs of where you will find new puzzles to solve, so you’re not wandering around this big space desperately looking for doors and triggers.

So that’s fun. And while you’re doing it, you get a bunch of diary-page style storytelling in the form of change log notes and director’s commentary and other scattered text and audio clips, messages from the Old Pro, and the occasional scene of avatars interacting in-world. This is how you learn about Maze, the expert player who has come on to work for Ish as a designer, who loves high-difficulty gameplay and hate hate hates cut scenes; Coda, the long-time fan who has grown up waiting for Ish’s next game; references to Ish’s ex-wife and to other QA testers and designers who came and went over the years. From time to time you hear music, overlaid with instructions from the composer about what it’s supposed to sound like in this context.

Eventually – but let’s have some spoiler space.

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Her Story (Sam Barlow)

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Last year I wrote about the way Gone Home is mostly backstory but doesn’t yield to thematically directed exploration. I talked then about wanting to see more games of research, pieces where the player could make guesses about where things were going and then test them out.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story accomplishes that nebulously-framed wish of mine, and brilliantly so.

The idea is apparently straightforward: the protagonist has access to a database of video snippets taken from the interrogation of a woman involved with an apparent murder more than 20 years ago. The video snippets all have searchable subtitles, which means that if you look for a word that is spoken in one of these snippets, you can bring it up. What you can’t do is watch all the snippets in order; and if more than five snippets are associated with a particular keyword, then you can’t access those after 6. (This prevents the game from being too easily solved by someone who latches onto key names early on.)

As a police filing system this is perhaps not very practical, but it makes for a highly engaging game. One starts with a prompt, “murder”, which turns up several snippets with which to get started. From there, it’s a matter of thinking of new keywords to enter. Sometimes the keywords are names or places mentioned in one video that are obviously important. Sometimes I reached them by association or guesswork instead: if one hears about a death, it’s reasonable to want to know what happened at the funeral, for instance. And, of course, the same snippets of video may be reached by several different routes, so there’s less of a premium on exhaustiveness than in something like Toby’s Nose (but perhaps more than in the intentionally unmappable daddylabyrinth). It also feels less controlled and gated than Analogue: A Hate Story.

The game also has a second level of robustness, namely, it’s not necessary to see absolutely every snippet in order to work out what happened. 80-90% is probably sufficient. Personally I had a pretty good idea of what had happened by the end of a couple of hours, though I kept playing for a while longer in an increasingly quixotic mission to find the last remaining bits. I failed to get them all, but I reached a point where I felt pretty satisfied.

It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable. After playing through this myself, I brought it along to an interactive fiction meetup and watched another group of people play: they saw the story unfold in a totally different way than I did, but it still worked. (They were also so fascinated with the game that we stayed on that for two hours and never moved on to other activities.)

There are a couple of features of the snippets themselves that make this scheme work. First, they’re telling a story that is very complicated (so there’s quite a lot to find) but differently shaped from what you might initially expect (so you’re not just filling in some sort of Motive/Opportunity/Method chart).

Second — and this is a reflection of both writing skill and the quality of the acting — they contain multiple kinds of information. In the earliest phases of the game, the player is just trying to get a sense of the key people and places in the story, scanning the snippets for names to build up a who’s-who. Then one starts comparing new snippets to old ones, looking for factual discrepancies and implications. Later, after the shape of the story has started to emerge from the mist, they start to be readable for emotional hints as well. There are details — visual details, verbal details, tones of voice and choices of imagery — that only take meaning after the player knows quite a lot about what is going on. And that is why the same snippet can still function well in the building of the narrative regardless of whether you see it as almost your first pick of the game or not until quite late.

I’d like to talk about the actual content a bit; however, any discussion of the story itself is of course massively spoilery, even more so for this work than for most games. So I’m going to put that behind a tag.

However, if you’re reading this review to find out whether I think it’s worth playing: yes, absolutely. If you’re a parser IF fan from the old days, you probably remember Sam Barlow from Aisle, a one-move game that is still one of my go-to pieces for introducing new players to parser IF despite the fact that it was written in 1999 — and you may find that the game has more in common with parser IF than you might have thought possible. If you’re a student of experimental narrative forms, this is a smashing example that people will be discussing for some time, and you should know about it. If you’re more of a mainstream indie game enthusiast, you’ve probably already seen the collection of positive reviews Her Story has racked up elsewhere, but in case you haven’t: this is not only a fascinating experiment, it’s also a solid, suspenseful gaming experience that kept me on the edge of my seat.

And the disclaimer: I bought this game in preorder, but Sam then sent me an advance key so that I could play early and review it.

Go play it before you read anything else I have to say. PLAY IT PLAY IT.

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Sunset (Tale of Tales)

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Sunset is the story of Angela Burnes, an African-American woman who has become the housekeeper of Ortega, a wealthy man in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria. The time is 1972, in the middle of that country’s civil war. Every week Angela spends an hour before sunset tidying her employer’s house in the rose-orange half-light.

During that time the player can go through Ortega’s possessions, getting to know the man better, checking chores off the day’s list. Eventually, Ortega starts leaving notes around the house, which the player can answer. Many chore actions and note-answers offer two variants, a flirtatious one and a cold one, but Ortega also responds to any sign of human presence. Leave his lights on, leave his water running, and his love for you will grow.

The apartment changes from visit to visit. Sometimes there’s a mess, left over from Ortega’s activities. Sometimes there’s new mail or rearranged books. Ortega changes from week to week which doors of his apartment are locked, which means that the whole floor plan of the apartment is rarely available to us at once; the apartment retains some more private areas that we only get to visit once or twice.

The ability to section off parts of the floor plan helps direct the player each day, though it was (I found) an only middling solution: on several days Angela was assigned chores so vaguely described that I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go in order to perform them. Somewhere in the apartment, from some angle, there would be a hot spot that would complete the chore in question, and I’d wander around all the rooms over and over, curious, then confused, then bored.

I began to enjoy Sunset more when I decided to let myself skip chores that proved too hard to find.

Fortunately, Ortega’s a forgiving boss, so even if Angela leaves some tasks undone, he never fires her and the story never comes to a mid-game halt. And the system seems designed in part to push the player towards romance, towards the flourishing of a sense of intimacy with someone never seen or encountered.

Sometimes the interactive flirtation worked for me, though more when it took the form of physical gestures rather than words: I was happy enough to leave Ortega’s possessions attractively laid out, but some of Angela’s flirtatious messages to Ortega are more overtly sexy than I found… plausible? comfortable? …given that they’ve never even been in the same room together. This may partly be a reflection of the writing generally: Angela’s inner monologues were often a bit on the nose for me, too, though not so much so as to ruin the experience. Conversely, I was amused the time I took the black queen off the chess board, and returned to find that he’d removed the black king as well.

Eventually, as things break down in the city outside, the apartment becomes more and more cluttered with objects that Ortega has rescued: crates and boxes, maps, museum plans. Hallways that used to be useful become blocked with junk, forcing me to go the long way around. Angela’s inner voice was frustrated, though not as frustrated as my own.

The thing I like best about this gameplay is the way it allows for improvising small expressive moments. The way I’m drawn to the window by the sound of jet fighters outside, and watch the contrails nervously even though I know it’s just a parade demonstration. The way I turn on a record and sit in a chair to listen to it after my chores are done, reaching for some quiet. The way, on other days, that I rush through my chores and leave again as soon as possible, currently annoyed with Ortega and not willing to linger in his space. The pleasure I take in the sight of my shadow cast across the carpet. The nervousness when I look out the window and see the city burning right before the protagonist was supposed to head home — surely it would be safer for her to sleep overnight in Ortega’s apartment than to go out alone in that chaos? The shock of hearing a bomb go off and seeing its flash in the lighting change around me.

Late in the game I found myself updating the calendar to the current date, even though that seemed pointless and futile, just as a touchstone for the earlier times when I had been meticulous about that ritual.

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Interactive Narrative GDC Talks (Part 3)

Previously 1 and 2. Here are a few more — the last set, for now, though I note that the GDC Vault has made a lot of past years’ material free, so I may go back and dig out some recommendations from those as well.

Anyway!

Microtalks 2015, Richard Lemarchand, Emily Short, Lisa Brown, Matt Boch, Naomi Clark, Tim Rogers, Holly Gramazio, Celia Pearce, Cara Ellison, Rami Ismail. (Recorded talk.) This includes me talking about why everyone should play tabletop storygames. It also contains hilarious microgame concepts, some beautiful reflections on intimacy in play, art in games, recommendations about workflow, and reflections about how badly games reach out to non-English speakers. This was an enormously fun session to be part of.

The Design in Narrative Design, Jurie Horneman. (Slideshow only.) Jurie makes the case for how systems design and narrative design must be integrated, which is something of a hobby-horse of mine as well.

Computers Are Terrible Storytellers — Let’s Give Humans a Shot, Stephen Hood. (Slideshow with notes.) Addresses limitations in computer-based story-telling, and looks at card-based storytelling games, tabletop RPGS and (yay) storygames again. Gets into more detail about Fiasco than I had time to in my microtalk, and talks about how these relate to their game project Storium.

Games of Comfort and Consolation

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By Naomi Alderman with Holly Gramazio and others, The Sun Stands Still is a piece about depression and, in particular, the connection with other people that is sometimes the surprising consequence of our own sadness. Gameplay consists of navigating home, store, and work environments, where you can turn on lights (or accidentally trip over junk on the ground) and find objects that you need in order to perform basic self-care tasks. As the game goes on, your home environment gets more and more oppressively messy, and it gets increasingly hard to play without frustrating slips. Nonetheless, you are not entirely alone, as the final scene shows.

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Thieves’ Gambit, Psy High (Choice of Games)

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Thieves’ Gambit: Curse of the Black Cat is a Choice of Games title in which you, as a great cat burglar, have to pull together a team of co-adventurers to attempt to steal a particular cursed gem. As usually for CoG, you can pick your sexuality and gender, as well as specialize in one of several types of theft-related skill. You can also decide which other characters to pursue romantically, which turns out to be one of the more significant aspects of the game, affecting not only how you feel about other characters but how your team forms up and how you approach the heist.

There’s enough bushy branching in the structure that you can experience significantly different scenes during both the break-in and the preparation, and overall the story felt quite responsive to my decisions. I might have liked to see more development of the romantic leads before I was forced to choose which options to pursue, but once I had made a choice, I noticed a number of subsequent points that had been unobtrusively tailored to reflect those decisions.

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