Firewatch (Campo Santo)

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Firewatch is a new narrative-and-exploration game from Campo Santo, put together by a skilled crew including Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, writers on season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

It took me about five hours to play; people who are more efficient or look at fewer scenery objects might make it through in four. It is effectively a short story, with a single emotional arc and minimal branching. I’ve seen people comparing it to Gone Home, but more happens in the present setting of the game; I also found a few moments that reminded me of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but it is ultimately a very different game from that as well.

Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a guy whose wife Julia is suffering from early-onset dementia. Henry isn’t really equipped to handle that fact. He volunteers for a position watching for fires all summer in Shoshone National Forest. His main – and for a long time really his only – point of contact with other people is through his radio, which allows him to communicate with his supervisor Delilah. He lives in one tower in the woods and Delilah lives in another, far away; Delilah manages other lookouts, but we never communicate with them. Over the course of the summer, Henry spends a lot of time hiking the woods to various spots to do errands at Delilah’s instruction. Gradually, they begin to realize that there are more people out here than they knew about, and that someone is watching Henry and Delilah specifically. There are also, here and there, notes from rangers who used to watch these woods but who have now gone on to other work elsewhere, and hints of the hikers who passed through these woods before.

The game sets up Henry’s backstory through a piece of choice-based text, a passage that could quite plausibly have been prototyped in Twine, interspersed with scenes of his arrival in the woods. The hypertext portion gives you a chance to do a little immediate personalization of Henry. I don’t have the impression your choices there pay into any major story changes, but they do lightly tweak what Henry will say about himself later, and a few props he has. We see the effects of this more or less right away in the game world, in that we pick one of two ways that Julia might have sketched Henry, and then shortly afterwards see the sketch itself: an early promise from the game that there will be perceivable consequences for your choices.

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Read Only Memories (MidBoss)

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Read Only Memories is a point-and-click graphical adventure set in “Neo-San Francisco”, in a cyberpunk future full of personal assistant robots; implants that let you experience VR right through your own head-hardware; and massive amounts of genetic engineering. Both the increasingly intelligent robots and “hybrid” humans (those with significant amounts of non-human DNA) are struggling for their rights, while the corporations have largely taken over the responsibilities of government. You are investigating the disappearance of an old friend who is at the forefront of the robotic research.

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That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games)

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Out today, That Dragon, Cancer is a game about the slow, painful, and confusing death of the author’s son by way of a rare cancer.

It tells its story through a series of vignette levels; in each, you have restricted navigational options to explore a 3D space, while audio and in-world manifestations of text fill in what is going on in the family at this point. Often you can hear the conversations of people whom you cannot see, which gives the sense of a ghostly dissociation.

The mechanics vary: sometimes you’re there only to look at a set number of things before triggering an advancement; elsewhere, you actually need to complete some small task, such as running a not-too-difficult platformer. Sometimes you need to spend a certain amount of time in a space with a screaming child in pain, and not be able to do anything about it. This is not a remotely pleasant or play-like experience, which of course is the point. But I often did feel that I was being offered an experience I haven’t seen anywhere else in games.

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IGF Narrative noms are out!

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The list of IGF nominees can be found here. That includes the games nominated in the narrative category, for which I was one of the jury members. I’m excited about this, and I also know that this is the point at which some people are sad, either that they didn’t place or that the IGF isn’t doing everything everyone would like from it.

I’m not sure this is possible to solve, and I do think the IGF is worth doing anyway. However, I also know that just telling people “oh, hey, if you weren’t nominated, that’s not necessarily a judgment on you!” isn’t as comforting as it could be.

Hence, this year I’m going to try to be as transparent as reasonably possible about my own judging process. (I have cleared this with the organization.) We are discouraged from discussing other people’s votes and reasoning: it should be pretty obvious why that is, I think, but in any case these conversations need to happen in confidence. I absolutely do not speak for the whole of the jury in what follows, and other people had other views. But I’m allowed to talk about my thinking.

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Cibele (Nina Freeman)

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Cibele is Nina Freeman’s game about being a 19 year old college student who spends a lot of time in an online game, and who meets an Internet Friend who becomes more; and about what happens to their relationship next.

It intersperses non-interactive video (in which Freeman plays her younger self) with largely agency-free segments where you’re playing the game (mostly endlessly clicking on enemies to attack them) and hearing voice dialogue between Nina and her new friend. There are also some more exploratory elements – you can poke around a bit on Nina’s computer and look at her email and the selfies she’s been taking to send to her internet companion, but they’re fairly limited and none offer diegetic agency that I can see. This is pure dynamic fiction in which the actual events will unfold in the same way regardless of what you do.

I’m not the first person to see Cibele as a kind of bookend piece to Emily is Away. (I am, for the purposes of this article, not getting into the concerns I had about consent in Emily is Away, which the author has said were not intended; there’s more that could be said there, but I’ve already talked about it elsewhere. Cibele does not present similar issues – it does directly show you how some of the main character interactions go down – and in comparing the two pieces for the rest of the article I am comparing the rest of the experience of playing EiA.)

So. These games are both stories of internet relationships that go wrong between people who have some difficulty articulating their feelings to one another, difficulty listening to one another. They’re about people who are too young and inexperienced to be skilled at relationships yet. They both trade on the likelihood that the player has actually had a relationship somewhat like this, sometime in the past, whose details can be pasted in even though the actual characters in each game are minimally specified.

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Problem Attic (Liz Ryerson)

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At the PRACTICE conference last weekend, I talked over lunch with some fellow attendees about the fact that understanding games as art requires something from the players, something that the culture of games has only weakly and occasionally embraced. Specifically, if games are a product, then we can expect them to cater to us, to make themselves accessible; we feel justified in discarding them if they aren’t.

But when it comes to art, we frequently expect to have to put in extra effort: to sit in front of a painting for a while before we start to understand it better, to reread a poem several times, to check out the footnotes on a play that contains many now-lost references. Art asks us to be patient with the difficult, open to the strange. It asks us to assume the artist has something to say, even if we don’t immediately see how.

I try to bring this approach to the works I play. Sometimes playing that way straight-up exceeds my personal resources. This was especially evident during IF Comp, when I was already stretched, and was not able to give as many extra hours of investigation to long-form games as their authors might have hoped. Sometimes, too, what I lack is not time but the right context or the right life experience or the right type of games literacy to interpret something. An author this Comp asked me whether I’d perceived certain themes in their work, and I had to say no, not really – but that this wasn’t proof that the themes weren’t there or that they’d been mishandled. It was possible that I’m just the wrong person to see them.

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A couple of hours after this lunch conversation, Brian Moriarty gave a talk about the history of interactive narrative that highlighted a number of games and works not usually mentioned in this connection: Wander, the IF system invented prior to Adventure; Kinoautomat, an interactive Czech film from the 1960s that ultimately demonstrated the users’ lack of real agency; Mr. Payback, another interactive film that sounds dire (and justly scorned by Roger Ebert [look around 16:55]); the Brainiac, a circuitry toy that could be wired up to perform as a sort of automated CYOA device, and featured such gems as an interactive quiz to determine the user’s gender (oh boy), and an interactive story about pirates.

Immediately after Brian’s presentation, Leigh Alexander spoke about the need to preserve cultural memory: to recognize, cover, and discuss important games and important criticism; to remember advances made so that we don’t have to remake them over and over.

These points – about people’s willingness to dig into something in order to find the challenging ideas there, and about our collective ability to remember and build on discoveries – stuck with me.

I was about to have occasion to think about them a lot more. The previous day, I’d written a post about the experience of agency in games, and the fact that stories of disempowerment still miss out on addressing some of the things I think are unhelpful about power fantasies. I mentioned an interest in the middle ground where the player has little power but is still implicated in the system.

That post soon got a response from Liz Ryerson, which is worth looking at in full. She notes among other things that her game Problem Attic is about some of these very issues, but that here was a blog post that didn’t acknowledge her game’s existence or show awareness that such a thing was even possible. (I want you to read Liz’s tweet thread partly because it’s thoughtful and nuanced: I don’t want to speak over her, and it’s hard to summarize with full justice.)

This made me go back and re-scan my original post to make sure I hadn’t actually said that no such games existed. I try never to make statements like that: I’m frequently exasperated by other people’s sweeping-but-ill-informed statements about what cannot be done with interactive narrative, or what has never been accomplished. And I think I didn’t, precisely – I was saying I don’t know how to do this, and I want to know – but I can see how it might have read as a blanket statement.

Anyway, here plainly was something I needed to look at. I had heard of Problem Attic but not played it. This is not surprising. I’m terrible at platformers. The only platformer of significant size that I’ve ever finished was Braid, and that was because it had undone one of the core aspects of platforming. Even some very short games, I’ve had to watch on YouTube if they were at all hard. I wasn’t sanguine that any amount of Play Games As Art attitude would make up for my truly awful reflexes.

Helpfully, Liz supplied a couple gameplay-and-commentary videos of Problem Attic that she thought did a decent job of unfolding what is going on, one short piece from CronoManiac42 and one rather longer from Brendan Vance. In investigating the game, I also read/viewed Ryerson’s RPS interview with Robert Yang, her thoughts on the game for Gamasutra, her talk “The Abstract and the Feminine”, and Brendan Vance’s written discussion of the piece.

With the help of those resources, I’m going to write about Problem Attic even though I haven’t been able to finish it myself. I’m relying on the expertise of other players both for the experience of gameplay in this case and for the rhetoric of platformers in general. Therefore, please frame everything I say below with “as far as I can tell,” or “from what I can see,” as needed. Nonetheless, in this case, I’m fairly sure it’s better to discuss the game in this limited way than not to discuss it at all.

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