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.


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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The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden) and Intimacy Inside Games

beginnersheaderThe Beginner’s Guide is a new game by one of the creators of The Stanley Parable. The premise is that Davey had a game-developing friend called Coda who wrote a bunch of small, arty games between 2008 and 2011, and Davey wants to walk us through these, showing the progression of the games and of his own relationship with Coda. He provides a voice-over that narrates everything we encounter. In some cases the discussion focuses on the design ideas and in some cases it touches lightly on the technical work that went into making a level.

This is one of those games in which the experience really suffers from spoilers, so if you think you would like to play a roughly 90-minute, mechanics light game about creativity, the challenge of understanding other people, and the mental health of creators, you may want to check it out before reading too many reviews, including this one. While I will not be giving away all the details of how the game turns out, it is impossible to discuss its major themes without ruining some of the surprise.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game which I bought with my own money.)

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A House of Many Doors (PixelTrickery)

City of knives screenshot

In A House of Many Doors you are an explorer, poet and spy. Mount an expedition to explore a vast dimension of procedurally-generated nightmare architecture. Assemble a dysfunctional crew, build their morale, uncover their secrets, and try desperately to keep them alive. Travel in a train that walks on mechanical legs, and write procedurally-generated poetry about the things you encounter.

The House is a parasite dimension. It steals from other worlds, and can contain almost anything within its endless walls. The player’s journey is a process of constant discovery – there’s always something strange around the next corner.

Kinetopede screenshot

Harry Tuffs is a member of the Oxford/London IF Meetup, and currently using incubation space at Failbetter Games. He’s just launched a Kickstarter for House of Many Doors, an IF + exploration game. The screenshots are a bit (or, in some places, strongly) reminiscent of Sunless Sea, but this is not a roguelike. I asked him for a bit more detail about the game, and he was kind enough to fill me in.

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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)


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)


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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