IF Comp 2019 Mini Reviews, Part 1

Short(?) reviews of Heretic’s Hope, Summer Night City, Flygskam Simulator, and Río Alto: Forgotten Memories.

Heretic’s Hope

The worldbuilding and writing of Heretic’s Hope reminded me strongly in some ways of Fallen London/Sunless Seas/Sunless Skies or the works of China Mieville (albeit with less dark humor and more melancholy than either), but it employs its weird fiction tropes in service of a story that felt fresh and unusual for the genre. Heretic’s Hope is, as I read it, a sort of allegory about the experience of growing up as an Other, specifically in the situation where everyone around you belongs to the dominant culture and you have no community of your own people for support. Though the PC knows that the members of this dominant culture (a race of giant insects, colonizers who are literally parasitic) look down on them for being (mostly) human, these are the people they’ve grown up with, and at the outset of the game they still believe on some level that if they work hard enough, they can gain acceptance; the game then follows the events that lead to their painful realization that this isn’t true. I found it a well-written story that felt emotionally real despite the fantastical aspects of the situation, and while I can generally take or leave graphics and sound/music in IF, both the visual and sound design were well-done and helped to enhance the foreboding atmosphere.

Summer Night City

It took me a while to warm up to Summer Night City. This was mostly because of the writing style, which is very wordy and melodramatically Gothic. In both diction and sentence structure–the em-dashes–the emphasis–the many, many subordinate clauses–it closely resembles the voices of some of Edgar Allan Poe’s more unstable narrators, but I can’t quite tell if “unstable” is what Summer Night City was going for, or if it was just sort of trying to be fancy. The PC does spend the first couple chapters of the game questioning his perception of reality, so the style may be intended to keep the player wondering about that too, but half the time it came off more as purple-prosey/self-consciously poetic to me.

The style does calm down a little once the game gets more into daily life at the bar, and at that point I started to become invested in the intrigue going on. The dystopia and the resistance to it are pretty lightly sketched out, but (again, once the prose is toned down a little) the game does a good job of building an oppressive atmosphere, and there are some scenes that make very effective use of the PC’s blindness to build tension and paranoia. The game’s one puzzle requires a bit of association that is probably not going to be intuitive to everybody, but I picked it up pretty easily on the second try (after making a totally random choice the first time).

Flygskam Simulator

Flygskam Simulator takes the player on bus trips through Europe that are, as far as I can tell, pretty much completely randomized. Your choices have some effect on what text you do or don’t see on a given playthrough, but not much on the outcome of your journey. My feelings about this are definitely colored by the fact that my first four playthroughs all ended with the PC discovering they’d lost their passport. I thought at first that it was a weird choice in a game where the player has no control over the outcome to not only have most journeys fail, but to have most of them fail in the same way, but then I played through many more times–more than ten, I’m not sure exactly–and not only did I not lose my passport once, I made it to Hamburg about 90% of the time.

But my initial experience with the game was kind of frustrating, so that might be biasing my overall response to it, which is that while the writing is reasonably charming and the game is, as far as I can tell, bug-free, I’m not really sure what the point is. I suppose that, since the game specifically notes that the PC has pledged not to fly for environmental reasons, the frustration of the bus journey may be meant as an illustration of personal sacrifices made for the good of the planet, but this is both very subtle and undercut somewhat by the fact that the two things (as far as I saw) that will actually prevent you from reaching your destination, losing your passport and missing a connection because the first leg of your journey was delayed, could happen just as easily when flying.

In the end, although it’s a story about travel, it doesn’t really feel like Flygskam goes anywhere.

Río Alto: Forgotten Memories

Río Alto is unquestionably rough around the edges in a lot of ways. The game is a sort of point-and-click with interactable people and objects–as well as thoughts, which basically function as topics to ask people about–showing up as “cards” alongside a storybook that contains the game’s text and illustrations. Unusual interface aside, it plays pretty much like an adventure game, and it lands in the common adventure-game pitfall wherein sometimes it’s just too much of a stretch to figure out what object to use on what in order to advance, and so you just run around trying different combinations until something works. There’s also one bit that seems to trip a lot of people up where you become briefly unable to interact with your surroundings and must instead combine thoughts from your inventory with each other to progress. It seems that originally part of the problem was that the interface didn’t make it clear enough that you could do anything, which the creator had fixed by the time I played. But there’s also the fact that this is the only situation in the game (that I encountered, at least) in which combining thoughts does anything, so there’s no reason to assume that it’s a useful thing to do–when you’ve exclusively been using inventory items on the environment rather than each other, the latter may not even occur to you as an option.

The prose is fine in Spanish (I switched languages back and forth a few times), but the English still needs an editing pass or two for grammar, and there are occasional false-cognate problems–I switched languages at one point to figure out what on earth a “glass of must” was (it’s actually mosto, which is grape juice). I didn’t find the language issues impeded gameplay at all–it’s usually possible to figure out the important aspects of what something is from context, especially with the graphics–but it can be distracting.

On the technical side of things, text on cards is often cut off–a problem that I found was actually worse in Spanish than in English, on average, since the phrases tend to be longer. Descriptions of locations/people/objects also don’t change quite as much as they should. You can take a book off a bookshelf, for example, but every time you examine the bookshelf, the one you took is still mentioned as being there. I also ran into a few actual bugs, though nothing game-breaking.

Despite all this, though, Río Alto has charm and ends up being quite compelling. It’s well paced, doling out mysteries, clues, and answers at intervals such that you feel like you’re making progress and don’t get overwhelmed by too many open questions, but you always have at least one thing you’re still wondering about as an impetus to keep searching. I enjoyed the sort of double-twist of the plot: the incidents you investigate start out looking like a mundane tragedy, then take a turn for the supernatural, then turn out to be something else again. My interest in finding out what happened was motivated more by intellectual curiosity than emotional involvement; the main character is (intentionally) an enigma whose motivations I never found out, and the townspeople aren’t developed much beyond their functions in the plot. It becomes clear, however, that the character the game really revolves around is Felisa, who is complex and fascinating, if not necessarily likeable; in the end, I was just as curious about sorting out the seeming contradictions of her personality to get a full picture of who she was as I was about just finding out the facts of what happened.

Although the events, both present and past, get gruesome and highly dramatic at times, the writing, art, and occasional music work together to maintain an atmosphere of quiet sadness. The illustrations are lovely in and of themselves, as well; the style reminds me a bit of Mexican folk art (specifically the devotional paintings known as retablos or exvotos), though I don’t know if that’s intended. When, in the English version, the writing gets shaky, the art does a lot to maintain the mood; the Spanish version doesn’t need this, but they’re still an important part of the whole.

Finally, I really like the exploration percentage in the game’s menu that tells you how much of the content you’ve seen on this playthrough. I didn’t manage to crack 50% within the two-hour limit, so there’s quite a lot I haven’t seen; hopefully I’ll be able to come back to it later.

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