Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

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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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Delphina’s House (Alice Grove)

delphinaDelphina’s House is another of several ParserComp games that I didn’t have time to get to while the competition was actually in progress. It was widely liked by the comp judges, and came in 3rd overall and 2nd in the technical category. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl who is performing a sort of treasure hunt (mostly of the imagination) before moving out of her house for the last time. I found this premise mildly charming but not all that gripping; I was more interested in the puzzle construction, which was effective.

The core mechanic centers on shifting from one universe to another: an object that appears as tiny jinglebells in one imaginary universe might appear as a collection of marbles in another, for instance. This is strongly reminiscent of Dual Transform, but whereas Dual Transform requires you to move through and understand all its spaces, Delphina’s House uses the transformation strategy to make its game more forgiving. There are three major puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of the three universes: you can pick which variation you find easiest and solve it there.

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Eczema Angel Orifice (Porpentine)

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Eczema Angel Orifice is an anthology of Porpentine’s work from the last several years, assembled into an application with a soundtrack by Brenda Neotenomie and authorial notes for each piece.

Because Porpentine is prolific, there is a lot in the collection, including a number of works I’ve reviewed individually on this blog: howling dogs, Their Angelical Understanding, Ruiness, Begscape, ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, Contrition, With Those We Love Alive.

There are a number of other pieces, too, some of which I hadn’t reviewed; a few I hadn’t even played before this came along, like the brief and curiously consoling mother from Twiny Jam, in which your insect-related parent cares for you with food and moths. Even if you follow Porpentine’s work, odds are good that at least a couple of her things have slipped past you and that you’ll have a surprise or two waiting in the compilation.

It’s also just a very pleasant way to experience these pieces. There’s an interactive guide at the beginning, to help you identify works that you might particularly like, or that might suit your mood. If you haven’t played ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III yet — and you should — this package will also make it easier for you. (I won’t explain why, as that would involve spoilers; just trust me on this.)

As for the design notes, they are like the rest of Porpentine’s writing, compact and thought-provoking.

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I liked that the notes were offered as separate reading and that Porpentine hadn’t done any sort of overlay or footnote presentation within the main texts: these are often so carefully crafted that notes would come as an intrusion. Reading the commentary before or after a work felt like the natural way of doing things.

A couple of things aren’t in the collection: there’s no Love is Zero, no Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha (perhaps because that relies on external music resources?). But that’s often the way with anthologies.

The full package is available for $5 on itch.io.

Her Story, Further Reflections

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I wrote a review already about Her Story, and that is what you should read if you are trying to decide whether to play it.

But lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.)

I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it?

So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it. This will be very very full of spoilers and also really heavy on the personal reflections, so if you are not interested in those things, bail now.

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Pry (Tender Claws)

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PRY is an iOS story that combines video segments and text to explore the inner and outer worlds of a veteran who is still struggling to process his experiences in the war, who is suffering from vision impairment thanks to wounds sustained there, and who is now trying to hold down a job in demolitions.

The interaction consists entirely of swipes and touches of the text: not, as in a hypertext environment, selecting particular words and choices, but instead pinching portions of the screen together, pulling them apart, or sliding along a line of text. The hand is in contact with the screen almost all the time, and movement is almost always meaningful; operating PRY feels tactile and analog, like playing an instrument.

The conceit is that there are several layers of reality happening at a time. Though this is handled in different ways in different chapters, the general rule is that if we spread the page open, we’re opening the protagonist’s eyes, looking outwards, and seeing objective reality. Sometimes that objective reality takes the form of video about what is happening around us; sometimes it’s different text. Or, again, if we pinch the page closed on itself, we’re retreating into the subconscious, where flickering surreal images and rapidly cycling single words of text indicate our fears, our memories, our connections with the present. The subconscious recollection of childhood, or of an incident in war, might underlie our uncomfortable reaction to what is happening on the job site.

pry_brailleThemes of sight and the ability to see are crucial. In one chapter, we can read a braille passage about Jacob and Esau by swiping over the braille text; this functions as an audio scrub, moving the voiceover forwards and backwards. One can read tentatively, a single word at a time, or fast, fast enough to turn the words into semi-gibberish. This appealed to me on several levels: because it recapitulated the physical experience of the protagonist, and that is a level of involvement that iOS games are very rarely able to offer; because it put me in a position of temporary and uncomfortable illiteracy (I can’t read braille and the string of dots meant nothing to me on their own) that suggested helplessness; because I felt relieved when I was able to get the translation after all, via unconventional means.

(Ironically, I suspect that this would be a very difficult game to make accessible to visually impaired players, but I’m not sure.)

Elsewhere, PRY offers a text that opens and opens and opens. Initially there are just a few lines of text on the screen. Pinch them apart, and new sentences appear between old ones, expanding the narrative outward. Sometimes, in a virtuoso trick, the new sentences change the meaning of the sentences that come afterwards: a pronoun now refers to someone different, a description to something else. But the text has to work in both its closed and its open formats. There’s a lot of content here, too — you can keep expanding, keep reading more and more into the screen, for longer than seems plausible. And when there’s no more detail text to be read, sometimes peeking between the lines will instead reveal the subconscious response, flickering words that convey the protagonist’s ambivalence or fear. The lines that have been fully and wholly explored fade gently to a darker grey, guiding the reader to where new material remains to be seen.

It is, in short, an ergodic work that requires a reasonable amount of effort from the player, but the smoothness of the design means that that effort is low in friction and typically enjoyable. There are no choices available that will change what happens in the story, or even how the protagonist feels about them; our decisions are entirely about how deep we will go into the protagonist’s understanding, and what aspect of his experience we want to look at when.

PRY was released without all of its chapters, but even as it stands it is appealing and evocative, and very unlike most other interactive story interfaces I’ve encountered.

(Disclaimer: PRY came to my attention during IGF judging, but I played a copy that I purchased.)