TerrorText

Recently I’ve revived TerrorText, a teletext based horror game I was working on in ren’py last year. I’ve ported it to Unreal so I can be a little more flexible with events.

The idea is that there’s a cursed section on the teletext, accessible only by going to page 666 at the right time. When I was a kid I thought there was something weirdly fascinating and mysterious about teletext, it seemed adult and unknown (because I couldn’t read particularly well I suppose), and I want to draw on this feeling to create a horror game.

The Shader

I started out with the look of the thing, because I generally find that motivating and it draws on my existing skillset.

I didn’t want to have to make every page individually, nor did I want to use an actual telextext character editor. I need to dynamically alter the UI and cutting things into modular pieces makes far more sense for that.

As such, I made a UI shader that pixelates a 2D image it takes in and rounds each color channel to 0 or 255 to create the limited color palette. This actually gives me one additional color than teletext had, but its an elegant solution and I’m more about the spirit of the thing than accuracy here.

The graph – simple stuff for such a cool effect!

I laid out a couple of quick rules that seem to get the best result: 75 shader resolution, 1024 original resolution with 28px text.

The final look!

Importing Text Content

As there would be a lot of text content in the project – teletext pages do not write themselves – I wanted an easy way to import, edit and update it. I wanted to have my friends contribute some writing to this, and I didn’t want to have to grab the repo or do anything in engine.

As such, I wrote a quick python script that takes in a folder of text documents and constructs a csv out of their contents. This is then imported into unreal as a datatable, containing the text’s ID, content, title and other information relevant to the flow of the game.

import os
import csv

CSV_PATH = "C:\\Users\\amyst\\Documents\\Unreal Projects\\Prototypes 4.25\\Source\\Terrortext\\Writing\\content.csv"
CONTENT_PATH = "C:\\Users\\amyst\\Documents\\Unreal Projects\\Prototypes 4.25\\Source\\Terrortext\\Writing\\Content"

def get_files():
    return [f for f in os.listdir(CONTENT_PATH)]

def make_csv():
    content = get_files()
    with open(CSV_PATH, "w") as c:
        writer = csv.writer(c, delimiter=",")
        writer.writerow(["ID", "Title", "Text"])
        for file in content:
            file = os.path.join(CONTENT_PATH, file)
            print(file)
            with open(file, 'r') as f:
                lines = f.readlines()
                contentLines = lines.copy()
                del contentLines[0]
                del contentLines[0]
                for line in contentLines:
                    line = line.replace("[","")
                    line = line.replace("]", "")
                    line = line.replace("'", "")
                writer.writerow([lines[0], lines[1], contentLines[0]])

if __name__ == '__main__':
   make_csv()

When I get new content, all I have to do is run this script, and its straight into the game.

With art and writing content sorted, it was time to actually make something interactive! I set up various UI widgets and a main gameplay blueprint, with the channel number being set in the UI then using an event dispatcher to talk to the main blueprint and update what is being displayed.

The datatable holding the text also has an associated field for graphics, so for now everything is set via the channel number matching a number in the datatable.

Oddly enough, the longest part of this setup was creating a function that checks the number of characters in the channel number string and adds dashes to it. This feels a little superfluous, but is quite important so the player knows which number they are inputting.

Event System

On top of the UI work, I made an event manager blueprint, also connected to the event dispatcher ran when the player has input a channel number. This stores and checks things like the number of unique pages visited and in which order pages have been visited. I plan to control the flow of the narrative using these. The ideal is that because we’re not running off a series of if statements, utilising more abstract tracking instead, each player will have a completely different path through the experience.

Art

With the basics in place, I grabbed a house kit off of the epic store and moved my UI widgets into 3d widget components of the main gameplay blueprint. Having some art in is good for atmosphere and, beyond needing something for the remote, I’m happy enough with this to keep it as is.

Cute Bite and Mechanical Coherence

Cute Bite is the latest raising sim from Hanako Games, where you take the role of a butler training her vampire mistress, who’s decades long sleep has reduced her from a fearsome queen to a small child. By training various stats, the player guides the vampire towards her true power, gaining various endings for their efforts.

The main gameplay loop is choosing activities for the vampire to do – either jobs that gain money, or classes that raise stats and cost money – and balancing this with her mind and body health meters. In this respect the game is a standard, but very well executed, raising sim.

The thing that I found interesting was the additional mechanics and minigames that could be played at the end of the week, and how they tied elegantly into the main loop rather than feeling like seperate elements. Minigames can often feel tacked on, but despite the range of additional activities they fit excellently into the game.

The stats screen.
The butler and the vampire.

For example, one of the activities available by default is hunting. This can increase your mind and body meters if successful and uses the stats raised in the core loop. There is also a chance of money dropping. Because the stats are at the heart of the game, and the player is afforded an opportunity to gain crucial resources, this feels like a consistent part of the overall product despite it using turn based combat – the hallmark of a different game genre altogether. It is worth noting that Princess Maker, arguably the origin of these sorts of games, did have a dungeon mechanic, so it isn’t that Cute Bite is original in doing this, just that it is done exceedingly well.

The battles are based on the opposed stats of the vampire and her victim, which are in turn made up of two of the stats raised in the core loop. Not only do they tie into the main form of gameplay, but they are thematically appropriate to the vampire genre and are a little different from what you might expect from RPG stats. The target’s aloofness versus the vampire’s feigned helplessness was a particular favorite. The stats of each target are hidden at first, but as you encounter the same targets, you gain a picture of their competencies and weaknesses. This not only serves as a fun mechanic for discovery and strategy, it builds a painting of the town that you live in, as you meet the same people on the streets at night.

Cute Bite’s RPG style battles.
Princess Maker 2 Refine on Steam
Princess Maker 2’s RPG style battles.

Other activities include testing the vampire’s stats as she shmooses at a ball, attempts to burgle the local shops and mansions or arm wrestling grown men in the local pub. While these are all simpler, stat based challenges, it is worth pointing out the non-intrusive but well telegraphed difficulty of these challenges, using colors to signify difficulty, and the randomised nature of which stats will be challenged. Both make these great little mechanics that tie in nicely to the stat raising core.

The ballroom activity – I had no chance here.

There are also activities that allow the player to predict and affect their ending, by trading stats for money or divining a hint towards the ending they’ll get. Again, because both activities are tied directly to those stats that are at the core of the game, they work well.

Swapping stats for money.

What feels really great about all this is that these stats are not only the mechanical heart of the game, but the narrative one too. The game is a raising sim, you are trying to turn this girl into someone. The stats are both what you do and what the game is about. The stats affect your vampire in ways both telegraphed and obfuscated, with an icon appearing in the corner when the vampire is reacting to something that you chose for her or said to her in the past. The different choices, previous scenes and the personality the player sets for the vampire at the beginning of the game combine to change outcomes in a way that feels like the game is listening to you.

I searched for a game design term to describe what I’m talking about here. I wanted to use the word elegant, because it feels that way, but elegance in game design has a specific meaning to do with simplicity, depth and mastery. I’d argue that Cute Bite doesn’t have the kind of depth an elegant game does. While there is a lot of room for discovery and some interesting elements that feel emergent, the game is all authored and there is a finite amount of content that can be seen. This isn’t a bad thing – it just suggests that elegance is not the design philosophy I’m after here.

Coherence is possibly a better word, and one I’ve been using. Specifically I’m talking about mechanical coherence. Yes, there is narrative coherence here – as I mentioned earlier, what you do and what the game is about are the same thing, but I specifically want to highlight how every mechanic feels seamless and like it is build from the same set of bricks, on the same foundation.

Everything in this game is build around three concepts: Stats, Time and Money. The core mechanics of the game touch all three of these, with the less important aspects of the game touching less of them, but never having no basis in any of them.

A diagram of some of the activities in Cute Bite – I hadn’t yet discovered all of the mini games when I made this.

I can’t say what methodology the team at Hanako Games actually uses to design their titles, but the idea of designing from this core outwards is a great one. I’m not sure I could design something that neatly, especially considering I tend to approach a design narrative first, but making a diagram like this is a great exercise to both make the core of the game clear and discover how connected your mechanics are. I’ll try it on my next project!

What I’ve Been Playing May – June 2021

Itch Games

So most of my gaming time in June went on a crazy experiment where I played twenty two games in twenty four hours! I cleared out my itch library and played some arty, horror and VN games. Read more about it here!

Famicom Detective Club

I’d been waiting for ages for this one, was very excited when I saw it announced. I love detective games and the old school anime aesthetic.

I'm Liking Famicom Detective Club A Lot More Than I Expected To

I really enjoyed this at first, and thought the menu that the player interacts with the game through was very cool and old school. To examine scenes or interview suspects, you have a list of vague subjects to talk about, and selecting them in the correct order allows more information to be revealed.

Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir Chapter Nine - How Do I Get The  Mean Lawyer Lady To Talk To Me? - Nintendo Life

Unfortunately this got frustrating quickly, as the topics could sound ambiguous, leaving the choice of what to do next unclear. I likened this to a ‘narrative pixel hunt’. In my opinion, a good detective game should lead you to the answer while making you feel that you figured it out yourself, and here I felt like I was guessing at some points, or at others felt like I knew the next step but not how to express it through the game’s interface. I think the idea that the player can be ahead of their character’s thinking and then struggle to express their thoughts through the game is one of the key challenges of detective style games.

This frustration was felt the most when moving forward was prompted by doing or repeating an action that is obviously fruitless. There was no reason for me to try that action beyond trying every option, and it broke the fantasy of being a clever detective, making me and the character feel a little dumb. The option to perform an action that is impossible, like speak to a character not in the room, is often available, which leads to essentially a telling off by the character for making a stupid move.

Despite my grievances with the user experience, I did enjoy the story, with the school rumours, potential horror bent and references to Kabukicho creating a wonderful vibe.

I also really enjoyed the full voice acting in this game. I tend to prefer partial voice acting as I read faster than the speech, but this being in Japanese alleviated the issue and brought me more into the very Japanese world of the game. The art is also gorgeous, with lots of movement and more artwork than is normally expected for a visual novel.

New Pokemon Snap

New Pokémon Snap | Nintendo Switch | Games | Nintendo

I feel like this blog makes it sound like I just don’t like video games sometimes, as I seem to have a lot of complaints. Here’s a dozen more.

I was really disappointed by New Pokemon Snap. I’d played the original twenty years ago, getting the N64 cartridge for my seventh birthday, then patiently awaiting playing it as it was sealed away, along with my console, while we were in a temporary house until our new one was finished being built.

Perhaps this is the key to my lack of enjoyment – I was so excited about that game twenty years ago because I was pokemon obsessed. Nowadays though, I don’t know any pokemon after gen four and I think we’re on…eight now? So this felt more like a generic animal photography game than a pokemon one. That’s okay though – I figured I’d still get something out of it.

We started the game on a bad foot, resenting the incredibly handhold-y tutorial that wouldn’t let us try things or experiment. I understand that Nintendo’s audience can be young and this is who the tutorial was designed for, but we wished we’d at least been able to skip it as folk who are familiar with games.

Once we were in the game proper it was…okay? I can’t find anything to pinpoint as bad about the experience, but it wasn’t engaging either. After one or two rounds of a level I was bored enough to not want to play anymore. I wondered if the progression system was slightly to blame, with the natural discovery of new routes in the original game replaced with a ‘research score’ points based progression system, but even then I’m not convinced the actual core loop of the game would have held my attention.

Perhaps I’m just old and boring!

Resident Evil Village

So as a palette cleanser to the negativity, here’s a game I love.

RE8 Castle 13.jpg


While its overall world is a little larger, Resident Evil Village does the same thing that I adored about Resis 1,2 and 7 – it provides a small, enclosed environment that the player can learn, and that evolves over time. Not only does this let the player master the environment and provides fast traversal, it promotes both the horror feel and a solid sense of immersion.

One of the best ways to create immersion in my opinion is to provide a strong sense of player presence through a coherent and believable world. It doesn’t need to be realistic, but if it respects its own internal rules and the player can learn how to reliably interact with it, they feel as if they are really there. Mastering the small environment of Castle Dimitrescu really brought this feeling home for me.

I think creating this great sense of believability allows players, or at least myself, to suspend disbelief reasonably in other areas. The Resident Evil series has quite a few ‘gamey’ mechanics that immersion focused players like myself don’t generally enjoy but I almost revel in them here. I like trying to get all the rooms on the map to turn blue or knowing I’m safe in the safe room (though, looking at you Resi 2 for subverting that one!). The combination of a strong, learnable environment, puzzle mechanics and conventional mechanics that do not grate is quite reminiscent of some of the best Zelda dungeons, and I do wonder if nostalgia for these drives my love of this sort of setup.

RE8 Find Dimitrescu's Chambers walkthrough - Polygon

The entire Resident Evil universe is also incredibly silly. So many things happen that just don’t really make sense and yet I really enjoy the lore, the characters and the batshit yet predictable plot. Sometimes its less about doing something unique and more about executing something well and Resident Evil Village is incredibly well executed, with its fantastic artwork, fun puzzles and exciting gameplay.

I’ve not finished the game yet, so unsure how I’ll feel as more areas open up, but for now I’m really enjoying it.

24 Hours With My Itch.io Library

I have this thing I like to do. I go onto itch.io, look at my homepage filled with weird, wonderful, interesting games, add them to my ‘stuff to play’ collection and then… never play them.

In the spirit of ‘inbox zero’ and ‘I did x amount of this thing in 24 hours because I hate myself’ YouTube videos, I decided to clear my itch.io ‘stuff to play’ collection by spending 24 hours with it before deleting it completely. I had a couple of rules:

  • No demos, though small projects and jam games are fine
  • No paid games, all of the ones here were available for free
  • Avoid overly long games, get as wide a gamut as possible

This actually thinned out the list significantly, as a lot of that list was demos or episodic games.

Overall, this was a more ambitious project that I’d initially hoped, and I realised that I really don’t have that much time for gaming! Twenty four hours is a surprisingly long amount of time. I think I probably fit into that post-core, four hours a week gamer profile more than anything else, which is a little sad honestly. Changing that would involve not playing twelve hours of tabletop a week though, and I couldn’t possibly cut back there…

I digress. I think this took me about three weeks in real time, and in that time I played twenty two games. Some for ten minutes, some for five hours. Here are my thoughts on them.

Hour 1 – Lavender

I decided to start with Lavender by Clockwork Prince, a puzzle game made in RPG maker that promised some horror elements.

Why did I put this on my list?
I’m not sure, but this was the first thing on the list so I decided to give it a go. A puzzle game with horror elements based on the fairy tale of Rapunzel sounds pretty cool to me.

Thoughts
I enjoyed playing this, the atmosphere was mysterious and the puzzles were challenging enough to be fun but not to be frustrating.

The plant puzzle was fun the first time, frustrating the second.

I didn’t, however, get the horror that was promised. It was hinted at through item descriptions, but I believe the true horror lies in the secret ending, which required me to do the puzzles all over again. I hadn’t written down the solutions and the puzzles turned out to be significantly less fun once the satisfaction of completing them once had been had. An option to skip the puzzles after completing a first playthrough would have been great here.

Hour 2 – Short Games Hour

For my second hour I picked out three short games.

Weekend Fever

Why did I put this on my list?
I believe I spoke to the creator of this game in a visual novel dev discord about use of photo backgrounds. They linked me their games as an example of their photo process and I never got around to playing any of them. Oops, I feel a little guilty about that one!

I love The Smiths.

Thoughts

This VN has a wonderful atmosphere, with a beautiful, dreamy feel that’s reminiscent of some of the magical realism media I’ve been interested in lately. The photo backgrounds – the reason I was interested in this in the first place – are used to good effect to bolster this atmosphere, with good use of filtering and shifting to show the protagonists state of mind. The processing that has been done on the photos, the amount of them and their appropriateness to the text give them a deliberate feel that makes this work. I think visual novels that use photo backgrounds often fail because they are used in place of an image crafted directly for the work and therefore the overall effect is not cohesive. This can then lead into the unfortunate impression that the technique was used out of ‘laziness’. We all know making a game is bloody hard and no one doing it is lazy, but consumers don’t see it that way.

The ideas and themes of the first half of the game are excellent, exploring homecoming and trauma. The use of language is strong, but is let down by odd grammar. Like with many VNs I’ve played with this issue, this is likely down to translation or English as a second language. I try to look past this (I mean, I couldn’t write a VN in French!) but as a native speaker it can be immersion breaking when the grammatical flow is off.

There is a fantastic dream sequence in this game, where size of sprites is used to great effect. Every time you click, they come closer, as it you are willing the spooky figures to come towards you. It felt like a very literal version of the idea that a book’s interactivity lies in turning the page.

Unfortunately the game’s ending lets it down. In my playthrough, the romantic interest never regained memory of a tragedy she shared with the main character. His business then failed, and the two of them ran away together while he started writing again. It was presented as romantic, but to me it felt as if the romantic interest was an object used to heal the main character’s trauma rather than a person with any agency of her own. It was rather ‘manic pixie dream girl’ esque which, y’know, was considered sexist and cliché in 2009, let alone 2021.

Hot, Tasty and Armed

Why did I put this on my list?
I think I saw cyberpunk art and thought, cool?

Thoughts

The premise of the game is that you are a weapons dealer posing as a hot dog seller, but I missed this, and lost the game because I sat and made hot dogs and failed to give anyone a gun. The tutorial was not very effective, and the small resolution of the pixel art made things difficult to read or distinguish.

It’s difficult to work out what’s happening here.

DejaVu Text Adventure

Why did I put this on my list?
I honestly have no clue why this was on my list. I like text adventures though, so decided to give it a try.

Thoughts

It turns out this was a small experiment for the dev to try out Unity, so I didn’t expect too much here, however when I heard text adventure I expected something that followed the conventions of either a parser game or a CYOA style game, so was surprised at the way choices were presented.

The game opens with a keypad, and rather than typing in the combination you want to use or clicking on the numbers, you are asked to press a button to try a particular combination. Having the player enter this themselves would have added a small degree of synchronicity between player and character, producing player-character empathy.

There was another password guessing situation where I was told I couldn’t guess the combination. This rattled me – I wanted to try! I wanted to learn that I couldn’t do something by failing, rather than by being told.

Despite my complaints about choice presentation, I liked the overall premise of the game a lot. It felt like a text version of an old flash escape the room game, which brought back some nostalgic memories. I had fun here.

Hour 3 – The Horror Hour

SNAKE 3310

Why did I put this on my list?

The art looked really cool, giving off a retro horror vibe – very much my thing!


Thoughts

In a way, this game did everything that Deja Vu text adventure didn’t, providing a synchronised experience between player and character. The feeling of spacial presence created by using only the X, Z and numpad keys for input, as you would on a Nokia 3310, was used to good effect to promote a sense of horror. I felt like I was there, and whatever it was was coming to get me.

Horror aside, Snake is a genuinely fun game and, as mentioned above, the control scheme furthered that, as it felt like playing on mobile twenty years ago. The message sounds were very true to form also, which fed into a feeling of nostalgia and familiarly. Being able to erode this positive feeling was then a powerful tool for horror.

I did start to get a little irritated when things got spooky. At that point I wanted more choice than to just keep playing snake. I wanted to try calling Charlie, or the unknown number, or the police, but it seemed all I could do was play a silly phone game. In some ways that was the horror of the game, as the phone took away my agency, and whether that’s a commentary on our use of phones or simply the fun idea of a cursed phone hijacking your brain, it ultimately works.

Veinless Property

Why did I put this on my list?

They had me at “Junji Ito inspired”.

Thoughts

The first second I opened this game I thought the art style was incredibly cool. The comic book feel was authentic and it was as if I’d stepped straight into a Junji Ito manga. The second I moved however, I hated it. The shearing when moving the camera was very difficult to get used to, and I think less motion would have served the visuals of the game better.

There are only three colours used in this game, yet they are able to provide a sense of depth, strong lighting and highlights that exist to lead you around the level and towards points of interest. Its clear a lot of thought was put into the shader and texture work here.

The first interaction in this game is incredibly satisfying. The player flicks the light switch and is rewarded with a very cool lettering vfx, completley in line with its artistic inspiration, alongside a very nice sound effect. I sat and flicked this light switch for longer than I’d care to admit.

This interaction leads into the first task of the game – switch off all the lights. This is a nice little excuse to explore the entire house and gain knowledge of the environment to use later, all while setting up the tension that will pay off to provide horror later.

Best part of the game.

When Veinless Property does become horrific, it has some genuinely frightening jump scares that don’t feel cheap, as they feel very in line with the genre expectations regarding Japanese horror and Junji Ito’s style.

While I normally love games to be as short as possible so I can play as many as possible, I would have loved for this to be longer. With a larger location and perhaps some additional puzzle gameplay, I could play a nine to twelve hour campaign in this setting.

Project Kat

Why did I put this on my list?

I saw a let’s play of this and thought it looked really fun, but I’m not sure who the youtuber was.

Project Kat

Thoughts

I really enjoyed this! It was a fun horror game, well executed, with a mystery good enough to keep you playing until the end.

The game begins with some very heavy tutorialisation, which was a little much for my taste but made up for itself with some very charming art. This was all presented inside a dream sequence, which was a nice way to allow for more obvious and simple interactions that wouldn’t neccearily make narrative sense in the main game. On top of that, it was able to introduce the idea of choice and unclear cause and effect that are used to drive the horror in a slightly meta way.

I found the general writing in this game fantastic. The characters are charming, with dialogue that feels natural and fun. The item descriptions are cute and witty, reminiscent of a classic adventure game. The puzzles were easy, but presented a nice alternative mode of interaction that kept me engaged. The art is also great, with a lot of care put into the three different styles to ensure they mesh well.

As mentioned above, there was a warning at the beginning about choice being important and cause and effect not being obvious. With this in mind, I read private diaries and broke into people’s things and most definitely steered myself towards a bad ending, but if you present me with lore, I’m gonna take it. I’m not sure how much my choices affected the game, as I played only once and I’m aware there are only two endings, but even the suggestion that they did affected the way I played and thought about choice. I considered how my actions would affect myself and others, even if ultimately I made choices I knew may end badly, notably thinking about whether actions that were not presented as strict choices may have consequences. For example – should I shut this door, should I take a weapon I don’t need so someone else can’t take it later? It made me think about the possibility of a game where all the choices are hidden, and what you don’t do is as important as what you do. I suppose this is sort of touching on systemic game design in a way, as rather than thinking of the game as a branching narrative, a series of if statements, it becomes framed as a set of objects that may interact, a system. Something to think about another time!

Playing this right after Veinless Property was interesting, as the two games had very different senses of horror due to their different points of view. Being first person, Veinless Property’s horror was personal and somewhat mine rather than the character’s as I feared jump scares. Project Kat on the other hand, was more focused on building a frightening atmosphere through its worldbuilding and mystery. I think Project Kat would have been terrifying from a first person POV, but may have lost something vital as the characterization of Kat would likely have been weaker.

Hour 4 – Interview with the Whisperer

Why did I put this on my list?

This was made by Deconstructeam, who made The Red Strings Club, one of my favorite games, so this was pretty much an insta-click regardless. The premise did sound incredible though – a short game Same dev as the red strings club so insta click, but premise sounded incredible – a short game about a journalist who travels into the Galician countryside to interview an old man who claims to have built a radio that allows him to speak with God, powered by chatbot technology.

Thoughts

While this wasn’t necessarily the game I had the most fun with out of my list, it’s definitely the one that’s stuck with me the most.

The characterization and use of technology in this game blend seamlessly, as the man, who it is suggested may be senile, speaks in a strange, disjointed manner due to the chatbot dialogue delivery system. The content of his lines and the manner in which they are connected, for the most part, are equally as strange, so the tech doesn’t pull you out of the experience.

To speak to the man, you input your own questions, as you would when speaking to a chatbot. This slows the narrative down somewhat, and gives it an unnatural flow, but again the above justification makes this feel okay. In fact, putting in my own questions gave me a huge sense of agency and made me feel in control of the narrative, despite my knowledge that there is a scripted ending to the game.

There was also a small transmedia element, where you are encouraged to google things that the man mentions to bring up in conversation. I really like this kind of thing, so that was another point towards this game!

In addition to this, the dialogue is beautifully written, with an wonderful, philosophical take on God. ‘Society is God, culture is God. Ever changing, ever fading, within the collective unconsciousness.’

Hour 5 – How We Know We’re Alive

How We Know We're Alive – Downloadable Game | Free Game Planet

Why did I put this on my list?

I think I saw this one on the front page of Itch, based on what I’d played and collected. It sounded incredibly up my street – narrative focused, short and melancholy. I was also intrigued by the tag line ‘set in the bible belt of Sweden’. I didn’t know there was a bible belt in Sweden, so it presented an opportunity to learn about a new place and perspective.

Thoughts

This game seemed really promising from the outset, with both the blurb and its polished opening getting me invested. Unfortunately I ended up liking it less than I expected. I’m struggling to articulate exactly why, because this had incredibly high production values and an interesting story and setting, but something just fell flat.

I felt a lot of guilt making assumptions about the nature of a character’s death, but it wasn’t me who did that – it was the character I was playing. She told me her thoughts, and I went along with them, making it feel like the narrative-adventure equivalent of giving the player a gun and chastising them for shooting.

The themes of city vs country and homecoming are ones I like, but I think here rather than showing that the countryside can be as good as the city though play, like in Persona 4, the player is told this is the case and made to feel bad for not agreeing.

I think this would have been a fantastic film, but the message was just a little too unhappy to work well when put in the main character’s shoes.

Hour 6 – Visual Novel Hour

Love on The Peacock Express

Why did I put this on my list?

This promised dating and mysteries, two of my favorite things! It’s also refreshing to see a romance visual novel whose cast is not five bishie boys and the token lesbian option.

Thoughts

I enjoyed the intro to this game, being shown a little bit of each character’s personality and learning that I was playing as a cute private investigator.

I was then given the option of who to sit with, which determined the mystery and romance option I would play through. I’m not usually a fan of this pick a route style of structure – I prefer natural discovery – but for a short game this is fine.

The mystery was simple but fun, done through dialogue choices with indication of the character’s reaction to your decisions through some silly vfx.

As a romance game, this kind of fell down. While there was a little bit of flirting between characters during the mystery, it didn’t feel like there was enough build up to justify a kiss scene right after you’d completed it. It felt like a reward for the player for solving the mystery, rather than a natural thing growing out of the characters spending time together. There wasn’t any development beyond this single kiss scene either. I had hoped to fall for someone over the course of a mystery, not to solve their problem and be rewarded with a kiss. Due to this I wasn’t interested in playing the other routes.

Tomato Clinic

Why did I put this on my list?

I’m not sure about this one. It was one of the oldest things on the list. I suppose I was just adding any visual novel I could find, and I do love vampires, though this cutesy art style wouldn’t be my usual pick.

Thoughts

In a surprise twist, the visual novel I thought I’d enjoy less I really liked! This had a great set of options from the outset, opening with an offering of audio description or captioned sound effects, then a nice character creator with options for pronouns and looks.

I liked this take on the vampire mythos, though I do love a good velvet cape, the idea of vampires as a separate race of people who are quite close to humans was interesting. The idea of cultural exchange, a blood food bank and a museum of vampirism was very charming.

In a section where you could choose to donate some blood to the vampires, there were several options to stop that stressed the idea of consent, which I thought was a really nice touch.

I liked this, and found the characters interesting enough that I played both endings.

Hour 7 – Interactive Fiction

My Father’s Long, Long Legs

Why did I put this on my list?

I’d read somewhere that this is a particularly famous and well regarded piece of interactive fiction. It was also made by the same developer as The Uncle Who Works At Nintendo, which was a fantastic piece of horror IF.

Thoughts

This was sufficiently creepy, with some creative use of agency and flow to enhance the feeling of terror. Generally you click though the text, but at points it flows without you, lending weight to more dramatic passages.

It also employed in-text hyperlinks, allowing for some extras or additional routes for those more invested, which was a nice touch.

This game also played with visuals and sound in a novel way for a text based game, with a section where you must illuminate the text using a small torch and a point where the text disappears and some very spooky sounds are used.

Scents and Semiosis

Why did I put this on my list?

I put this on my list while I was working on Poetry in the Machine, as I was interested in procedural interactive fiction and what could be done with Twine.

Thoughts

This was a lovely game, where I built a character’s history by choosing what a scent made them remember and feel. It had a vibe of travelling, mistakes and lost youth that was quite beautiful and romantic. The game gives you three sets of options, if you don’t want any of those you get rid of it, as if you’d forgotten.

I’m not sure exactly how this worked, but the bottles and scent combinations felt surprising yet coherent, so they were probably put together with some strong underlying rules. The developer has actually made the source code available, and I’ve been saying I want to check out Inform 7 as I’m interested in its near-English rules based script, so perhaps that will be a project at some point soon.

Hour 8 – Games as Art

I had this phase during the height of lockdown where I wanted to quit video games and become a museum creator or run an art gallery. I think I was just tired of my technical art job and itching to get outside and into real spaces again, but it affected my taste in games for a while and I added a fair few ‘art games’ to my list.

Independent Video Game Game

Why did I put this on my list?

This seemed to be a parody of indie development. I don’t know if I knew this was what it was, or I took it at face value.

Thoughts

So I hated this. I understand that it was probably supposed to be this way as it was a pisstake but it was just not enjoyable in the slightest. I had to listen to the implied author throw buzzwords at my as I watched barley coherent video clips. Then it turned into Jesus pong.

I’m not sure if this was paying homage to something in particular that I didn’t have the context of that would have made it really funny, or if it was just an art games thing in general. In a way it was interesting as a warning – things can’t be different for the sake of being different, an art piece needs real meaning.

Why Cavemen Paint on Walls

Why did I put this on my list?

It was in the art game category I think.

Thoughts

Talking of real meaning, this game came with an artist’s statement talking about technological evolution and human ritual. Now that’s exciting!

Apart from…this game is all talk and no delivery. You push some buttons and see people in different poses in a lift. That’s it. It looks like they had fun making it, but honestly I didn’t see how the content related to their statement at all.

At this point I was starting to think that I didn’t actually like art games.

The Crows Crows Crows Community Museum

Why did I put this on my list?

As I said above, I wanted to run a museum for about a month, and the idea of a virtual museum seemed apt to the times and to my expertise!

Thoughts

This felt like it was supposed to be a joke, and yet it was the most artistic of all. I felt this was better than the actual virtual museums I’d been in, as rather than a street-view style walk through photos of a real space, we walk around in a 3D environment with really excellent bouncing sound, which made me actually feel embodied in the space.

It opens to this fanfare with the player’s eyes opening, and we expect a beautiful scene and we get…the unity default environment. Its great, genuinely funny. I like CCC’s sense of humour. There was another section explaining about the founder of the museum, a Victorian man who made a museum for them despite them not existing yet, but as he was rich he funded this instead of the artists of the age. It was a nice wee dig at the classism inherit in the art world.

A lot of the art in here, provided by the CCC server is genuinely good and makes clever use of games as a medium. For example, the crow below looks different from all angles as it’s three planes that converge at certain viewpoints.

Hour 9 -11 – Cupid

Why did I put this on my list?

Guess it just looked like a cool VN, added it when I was focused on VN dev and not wider narrative stuff. Reading the blurb now, the ‘director’ style perspective rather than that of the protagonist looks very interesting.

Thoughts

This game was extremely dark. The itch page does have a content warning, however it failed to prepare me for what I was going to be reading. I’m not one to shy away from sensitive subject matter, but I do believe is has to be handled with care and I’m not one hundred percent sure Cupid managed that.

Right from the outset of the game we get inference of rape, and the options the player is given when speaking to the victim all have elements of victim blaming. It certainly sets the tone for the game and introduces the game’s odd POV character, but I didn’t enjoy feeling that my only options were to be incredibly cruel.

The point of view character is not the character that the story follows, but ‘Mother’, a voice inside her head, who’s origin is revealed later in the game. The choices you have as this character are never good, generally being a sort of twisted kindness or downright cruelty.

The story itself was interesting, and some of the passages that explored sexual horror were very well written, however I felt the mystery and worldbuilding were a little weak in places. In particular, there’s a third act twist regarding the nature of the protagonist that was not well foreshadowed, despite the fact it provides justification for the POV character’s existence. It felt like the author had deliberately hid things from the audience as a story tool rather than this feeling natural and shocking.

Shock is sort of key to what I thought of this game. I did enjoy many parts of it, but others felt like the were there for shock value rather than artistic value. It felt in part as if the author sat down to write the grimmest thing they could, rather than having a point they wanted to make or a story they wanted to tell. I felt like I was reading a visual novel by De Sade.

Its not all bad though, one of the great things about this game was the ending screen where the choices the player made are displayed. I really enjoy playing through visual novels naturally the first time to get a sense of natural discovery, but being quite ‘gamey’ after that and trying to find every moving part and how they connect. This screen shows the player what might be important for their next playthrough.

Hour 12 – 17 – Ebon Light

Why did I put this on my list?

I have absolutely no idea – this one one of the later games I played as the dark cover image didn’t stand out. Its a shame, because this turned out to be my favourite game of all twenty two!

Thoughts

I adored Ebon Light. Not because it did anything particularly different or clever gameplay wise, but because it was an engaging, well written adventure with appealing characters and a complex heroine who felt easy to empathise with. It also had a good amount of customization, which really appeals to me.

I was excited to be greeted straight away with a character customization screen that allowed me to not only customize my look, but my stats as well, choosing a disposition to indicate my starting stat array. I love stat based rpgs to begin with, but presenting the choice of stats as something tied to character rather than mechanics is one of my favourite tricks. It allows the player to get a glimpse of what’s under the hood, without breaking the role playing focus. Later in the game there’s the opportunity to buy clothes, and the game lets you change your outfit at any point, granting more points for player expression.

The art in this game was lovely, with small touches of layered animation elevating what ren’py can already do, giving the whole game a pop-up storybook sort of feel.

The story here was really fun, with interesting world building and a novel take on elves. The writing is okay, with a couple of oddly worded choices being misleading in places, but nothing egregious. There’s quite a bit of optional lore, with a codex screen allowing you to read back on it, which is nice. The game has a lot of characters, but handles its large cast well. Each character feels distinct, and the amount of player choice in who you speak to and what you focus on allows each playthrough to drill down into a few of the cast each time.

There was one incredibly interesting moment in this game, where a dream sequence had you killing your chosen love interest by accident. The choice of who is in this dream is given to the player before they are aware that they are playing through a dream sequence, which plays with the idea of choice and consequence in an interesting way. For a second I genuinely believed I’d killed a character by inviting him to my room. I wondered about the possibility of using the typical conventions of romance VNs to misdirect the player in this way in my own games, but ultimately thought that it takes more than it gives. It feels too similar to giving the player a gun and chiding them for shooting.

My favourite thing about Ebon Light was the heroine. Partly this may have been down to my choices, but she was likeable and felt like a real person. She wasn’t stupid nor overly clever, not weak nor overly strong. I’ve come to expect Mary Sues or damsels in distress in escapist media where the audience is expected to self-insert, so was happy to be presented with neither. If this was down to my choices, then the stats were built well and the writing really supported them and my ability as a player to define my character’s personality.

There were a couple of interesting mechanics in this game, it being more than just a branching narrative. I enjoyed the noise level mechanic that invited careful consideration of actions and limited how many choices could be made, as well as the social approach to physical combat when convincing the character’s powers to surface.

Hour 18 – Off the Record

Why Did I Put This On My List?

I had a phase of about two weeks where I’d decided I was going to quit my life and start a cafe, because lockdown was making my crazy. This game appealed to that sense of small business ownership, doing your own thing and serving a small group of loyal customers.

Thoughts

The art style in the game is gorgeous, its flat, block colours make it feel like a living illustration. To show time passing, the developer used an animation of the sky made to look like a record spinning, which was really clever.

I enjoyed the slow pace of the game, feeling like I really got into the role of the record shop owner as I helped people and spread musical knowledge. I think if I’d known a little more about older music I would have enjoyed this even more.

The first time I played was bittersweet, with me realising I couldn’t keep the shop open and helping and encouraging the local music scene anyway, with the desire to go out with a bang. I’d had the option to play cynical and sell the shop immediately, so I played a second time to try this. I had a completely different experience, with interactions feeling less meaningful and play feeling almost boring – that checked out feeling. The game did an excellent job of getting me into the mindset of the record shop owner.

Hour 19 – Dr. Frank’s Build A Boyfriend

Why Did I Put This On My List?

I’d played one of the dev’s other games when we were a part of the same game jam and really enjoyed it, so wanted to play more of their work.

Thoughts

This was a funny, well written Frankenstein parody, with visual novel and adventure game elements. There were a couple of endings, which could be achieved by using certain items, rather than making particular choices. This made for more natural discovery and less telegraphing of choice which was interesting. I played through both the regular ending and the secret ending.

Hour 20 – 23 Lockheart Indigo

Why Did I Put This On My List?

I am a simple woman, I see a detective game, I put it on my itch to play list.

Thoughts

I loved this game. The social battle mechanics were unique and enjoyable, and the mystery was just long enough to be compelling.

The main draw of Lockheart Indigo was its social combat system, using a combination of a turn based menu combat reminiscent of Pokémon and a social deduction lock mechanic taken straight from Ace Attorney. Facts were presented as both inventory items and attacks, with additional powers that let the player manipulate, undermine and convince their opponent.

A reverse health bar is presented in the form of nerve, where each bad move the player makes increases their opponents nerve, until they gain the gall to tell them to leave. The read skill uses a turn to get an understanding of the opponent’s personality, allowing the player to make informed, tactical choices.

In addition to really fun social battling, Lockheart Indigo had some great level design and puzzles, with its enclosed environment reminiscent of games such as Resident Evil where you learn a small environment and use it in different ways. You are led around the house very well, feeling as if you are wandering but always ending up in the right place at the right time with the correct item.

Something I found interesting about this game was my personal engagement in its ‘gamey’ aspects. Most of the time, I prefer games that put a focus on immersion by following strong internal logic and making use of diegetic elements. However, this was full of game tropes, menus and silly logic and I loved it. Perhaps the art style and camera work reminded me of older games that came before a push towards realism, but I thought the same thing when playing the newest Resident Evil game so perhaps not. Its a topic I need to do a little more exploration into, so possibly expect a post on that soon!

Hour 24 – Toripon

Why Did I Put This On My List?

I don’t know what made me put this on my list, but it was the first game I ever put in a collection, so I figured playing it last was apt.

Thoughts

This was a slightly disappointing last play – this game really wasn’t my style. It’s a relaxed, story-less, goal-less bird photography game. I tend to like games that drive towards a point or purpose so I became bored with this quickly.

I suppose it was probably part of the design of the game, perhaps they were playing with the idea of colour contrast or something, but like with Hot, Tasty and Armed, the small resolution of the game’s art meant I struggled to make out what was going on. This wasn’t ideal for photography. There was a higher resolution once the photo was taken, and the birds were cute, but it meant the primary verb just wasn’t fun for me.

I also wondered why I had so many birds. Who has this many birds?!

Conclusion

And there we have it – twenty two games in twenty four hours! Goodbye to play list!

As you might notice in the gif below, I did actually make a ‘New Things to Play’ list, which may be against the spirit of this post, however there were a couple of paid for or long form things on there that I really do want to try. Wish me luck in not making this one quite so long!

Satisfying.

Overall I found this to be a really interesting exercise, both in quick evaluation of games and as a journey through my own tastes throughout the time I’ve been adding to the list. I think there’s a real value in the short games and experiments that developers post on Itch.io and I’m glad I made the time to finally sit with the things I thought looked interesting.

My highlights from the list had to be Ebon Light, Interview with the Whisperer and Lockheart Indigo. Hardly surprising considering visual novels, experimental narrative and detective games are among my favourite genres!

I think its now time to go play something really long and AAA as a palette cleanser.

What I’ve Been Playing April 2021

Thimbleweed Park

Thimbleweed Park Reviews | TechSpot

I was obsessed with Maniac Mansion when I was a kid, so getting a switch was the perfect opportunity to play Thimbleweed Park. This is such a throwback – I love the references to MM, the self-deprecating game dev humour and the twin-peaks-if-it-was-a-comedy setting.

It doesn’t feel quite as difficult and pixel-hunt-y as Ron Gilbert’s older games, which I like as it means less frustration and more irreverent humour. Its not too easy either though, and I have felt I’ve had to think while playing, so that’s great. Honestly, not too much to say here beyond I really enjoyed it.

Tokimeki Memorial Girls’s Side: First Love

Lesbian Relationships in Tokimeki Memorial: Girl's Side 1st Love (Visual  Novel) | LGBTQ Video Game Archive

I played this game again because I was both feeling nostalgic for my teenage years and was thinking about systemic relationship building. The romance focused games I play are by and large visual novels, where the focus is on the story, dialog and choices, but Tokimeki Memorial is a dating sim, where the onus is placed on planning the player character’s calendar in order to raise her stats. The goal of building these stats up is to guide her towards her desired career and boyfriend by the end of her school years.

While I like a stat based approach and really enjoy calendar balancing, this leads to a gamification of the relationship building process that doesn’t feel great. While in a VN I generally express my character how I want to and hope that matches with a love interest (at least the first time playing), playing Tokimeki is more like chess – calculating ahead, planning and saying exactly what you know the boy wants to hear in very limited interactions. As there is no linear story as such and you don’t have a ‘route’ to go on with your love interest, the dates can feel a little shallow, with one or two choices where you pick the line that the other person would like best. I wonder if there’s a way to build a system like this into a more developed story? I think Long Live the Queen does it well, but largely because the focus is on your output as ruler and not on specific relationships, so that level of personal interaction between characters isn’t needed.

One of the most interesting mechanics in the game is the bomb system. A character constantly rejected me, so I figured they were not interested and stopped talking to them. In return, a bomb popped up next to their portrait. If I didn’t fix this relationship, it was going to explode and affect my relationship with every character. This was akin to the character telling people you were horrible or gossiping about you, which I think is a really neat touch. Especially in a closed environment like a school, no relationship exists in isolation. I did feel however that there was a bit of a weird gendered feeling to this system, like as a girl I had to keep all the boys happy while they were fine to ignore me. I’m not really sure how to rectify that, as this game is full of things that could be seen as harmful stereotyping, but were also true to my teenage girlhood. Its a complicated one that I don’t think was bad enough to warrant critiquing, but I can understand how it might put some off the game.

Outer Worlds

The Outer Worlds on Steam

So this is a funny one. All my friends had been recommending a game to me. Its this first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with time bending puzzles and detective work. Right up my alley. Unfortunately, the game I bought was a first-person, open-world, spacefaring role-playing game filled with guns and capitalism. Que the Outer Worlds vs Outer Wilds problem. You’d think someone interested in game narrative might be a little more literate when it comes to her title choices, but here we are.

I figured I might as well give the game a shot since I’d spent the last two hours downloading it, and it had been a while since I’d played anything sufficiently Besthesda-like.

The game opened with some vintage style artwork riffing off of advertisements of the 40s and 50s and a tounge-in-cheek narration espousing the glory of capitalism. That had me interested. Political critique in a cool space world was something I was most definitely down for. When it started making not-so-subtle nods to Bioshock with the opening in the pod, I was sold.

Unfortunately the gameplay didn’t quite deliver on the opening cutscene’s promise. The twin sticks on the switch controller don’t feel great for camera or movement control which makes the combat fall flat. This may just be me getting used to the switch – this is the first shooter I’ve played on it – but the fact I’m having difficulty right at the start isn’t great. Its not awful when the joy cons are docked into the controller, but playing in handheld mode feels impossible. The level of sensitivity would be fine for keyboard/mouse, and probably for standard sized controllers for those more used to playing shooters, but its just too much for switch.

I may have already been soured on the combat by the first enemy you encounter being the marauders. You are given no context to who these people are, beyond that they are presumably human and they are going to kill you. There are no negative consequences for killing them (in fact, you have to kill them to progress in most areas) and stealing their things incurs no penalty, unlike other human characters.

Now, I’m not trying to go all video game violence bad here. I don’t have an issue with combat and killing as a mechanic as long as its adequately justified either by in game narrative or genre convention. I think there’s definitely a case for genre convention here and I was probably in the wrong headspace, having thought I’d be playing Outer Wilds, but it just felt wrong. We later have to make some really hard choices regarding human life and the capitalists who value profit over life are, so far, portrayed as straight up bad guys, so I don’t like murdering a whole encampment of people to steal a bloody engineering manual!

They attacked me so I attack them back feels rather cheap, but is at least fair. Justified self defence! Killing waves of these to complete an objective while you’re companion says nothing on the matter doesn’t feel justified. Some characters have mentioned how marauders barley speak, and it might be that we get context later down the line, so I am reserving full judgement for later, but I would rather context up front.

In contrast to mowing down marauders, the game has us make an incredibly difficult choice for our first major decision. We are told by the owner of the town that if we shut down the power to an outlying settlement, made up of deserters, we can have their power core to get our ship started. When I was given this task my immediate reaction was just, no. I don’t want to fix my ship if it means depriving an entire area of protection, heat and power. Upon making this objection (the dialog choices are generally very expressive and let you work through a problem before accepting it – I really like this) the owner tells you that he will take them back into his town. Of course, that means going back to his way of life, where profits are more important than people. These deserters left for a reason.

Never the less, I ventured out to the settlement and spoke with their leader, letting her know the deal. She offers a counter deal, switch off the power to the town and take their power core. Now – when I was making my over I was saying to my partner that that would be my ideal outcome, have everyone go to the settlement instead – but, the settlement leader was not offering sanctuary to the townspeople. She was after revenge.

My choice was between keeping everyone alive but under a cruel regime, or leaving an entire town of innocents to die. These people had no choice but to be complicit in the way the town was run. They were beaten down by it and scared to move out of line. Was I to doom them for this?

Ultimately, I chose to give the power to the town, with hope of not only convincing the deserters to go back, but to convince the leadership of both factions to come to some sort of agreement, where the town could be ran with an ethos more similar to that of the deserters. I got my way in the end, so that was pretty great.

I had a bit of annoyance with the game when I was given a number of side quests to do, just after I’d disabled the power. This is something that I often gripe about – I hate side quests that are given out at time-critical moments in the narrative. I don’t mind picking up a few when I’m meandering and there’s nothing bearing down on me, but you’ve just told me that without power the people of the settlement will die. By introducing side quests here, my sense of urgency and therefore my sense of immersion into the fantasy are taken away.

In my ideal game, all quests would have some sort of time sensitivity attached, and would not be able to be completed at or after certain story points. There with a persistent changing world to go alongside this. In a game that was catering to a wider gamut of player motivations however, I think the best way to deal with this is to not give out new side quests when these moments of urgency come up in the story, but to allow players to complete previously picked up quests at this time if they would like to.

Just as I was starting to decide this game wasn’t for me, it threw me a bone with some fantastic companion dialog. Parvati, who I already loved as a character, asked me for relationship advice. I was a little disappointed because in my headcanon we were already spacefaring girlfriends, but the entire sequence was really sweet, relatable and didn’t feel like I was making decisions for the character, I really felt like a respected friend giving advice. It was a fairly standard dialog tree, and I feel like I’m supposed to want more ‘interesting’ mechanics than that, but honestly I love a good bit of conversation!

I’m now looking forward to playing more and, as I’ve now picked up a fair few stragglers, thinking about my headcanons for how the crew get along. Good character dynamics really are instant fodder for my enjoyment of a game so this is good!

It Takes Two

It Takes Two review | PC Gamer

It Takes Two is a co-op platform adventure game, which I partially decided to play because of the co-op traversal idea I’d been playing with in my one page pitch exercise. I played with my partner, which was an interesting exercise in itself, as we rarely play together due to our conflicting playstyles – I play for story/emotion/immersion, he’s very into mastery/completionism.


I am very torn on my opinion of this game, because in some ways it is fantastic. The 3cs are incredibly polished and the game feels great to play. The platforming is intuitive and fun, just challenging enough to keep engagement up but not be frustrating, the new mechanics and tools provided to the player work well and blend seamlessly into the rest of the gameplay. I don’t normally like platformers that much and I really enjoyed this.

However, I found myself increasingly annoyed at the story and characters, which, as an aforementioned story motivated player, is kind of an issue. The game attempts to talk about a serious issue, but has both the tone and tact of a children’s movie. I found myself asking – who is this for? You play as two parents, ostensibly rectifying their marital issues through an adventure to break a curse that has turned them into dolls. The issue is that their daughter has put this curse on them for this very purpose. From an adult perspective it feels coercive and uncomfortable. The message was not that by working together they rediscovered their bond, but that they were forced into this discovery. I’ve not played enough of the game to know what the resolution is, so perhaps this angle is explored later, but considering it appears to be aping children’s movies of the early 90s, I’m not expecting it.

This is one of these situations where the mechanics and message should fuse seamlessly – co-op puzzle platforming is the perfect avenue for exploring co-operation, relationships and running a household/parenting – but the framing and tone have just let the overall theme down.

Also, the book character is the most annoying thing I have ever seen.

Mark and Lara

Buy cheap Mark & Lara: Partners In Justice cd key at the best price

This is a very short co-op detective game, where each player is given a different set of information and they must work together to make deductions about the case. I really love the premise here. It takes the best parts of detective puzzling and couch co-op to make what is usually a solo experience social.

Me and my friend had a lot of fun playing, though we did get a little exasperated by the line matching mechanic by the end of things. In order to point out a contradiction, the player must type in the number of a line in each character’s journal that contradict each other. This got increasingly less obvious, to the point that we had the right idea, but finding the line that matched that concept was difficult as suspects repeated the same things. It wasn’t heinous, but we were getting frustrated and had the game not wrapped up where it did I think we may have ended up giving up.

I really enjoyed the google mechanic, where you could look for additional information to do with the case by using keywords. This asks for more engagement from the player than is usual in a lot of detective games, as you are not led by wording of choices or hand held towards the answer. This is generally true of the game’s whole approach.

In terms of execution, there were a couple of localization hiccups, with some odd grammar and flow. As this was made by a small team, I don’t have the same expectations as I would of something AAA, but considering that the text is the focus of the gameplay and comprehending it correctly is the goal of the game, it would have been nice to have had an editor on the team who had a higher standard of written English.

Overall it was a good experience, and I’m looking forward to the next case.

Enter The Mansion Card Editor

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to work on Enter the Mansion, but I got back on it this week and finished up my rudimentary card editor. Previously, I’d been looking at scriptable assets and how to use them as a way for designers to create different ‘cards’ that could be displayed in game. This week I focused on how to make this card setup a little easier to use.

I’d initially hoped to have the TextArea boxes in the editor UI be the same size as the area in the game UI, so users wouldn’t have to check their word/character counts in game. Unfortunately I also wanted spell check, and the spell check package I used only game with extendable TextAreas that are a fixed size to start off with. Ultimately I preferred having spellcheck over the counts thing, as all content should be tested in game anyway!

The spell check feels a little clunky, as it is a separate window and does not offer suggestions, but its damn sight better than nothing and far more complex than anything I’m currently equipped to make myself.

In addition to the spellcheck, I added a slot in the card asset for an image that is then displayed in the UI alongside the text. Keeping these together is important, so that when I’m writing the room’s description, I can ensure that the text and the image match.

In addition to the window I added a unique, generated ID to each card. This is for debugging and tracking purposes, especially as content changes. Initially I wanted to create an ID when the asset was created and have it static, but Unity wouldn’t let me look up the asset database in a constructor, so I did it when the card loads instead. This actually turned out to be a good thing, as it meant that if I delete a card the others update accordingly.

    //assign ID to cards when they are loaded
    void OnEnable() { 
        string[] assetNames = AssetDatabase.FindAssets("", new[] { "Assets/Cards" });

        foreach (string asset in assetNames) {
            string assetName = AssetDatabase.GUIDToAssetPath(asset);
            string[] assetNameSplit = assetName.Split('/');
            assetName = assetNameSplit[assetNameSplit.Length - 1];
            assetName = assetName.Split('.')[0];

            if ((assetName + " ") == this.ToString().Split('(')[0]) {
                this.ID = System.Array.IndexOf(assetNames, asset).ToString();
                break;
            }
        }
    }

The last thing I did on this was add a button that moves through each of the cards, replacing the former random card on start logic I had in there before. This is a lot easier to test until I decide how I actually want to deliver my cards!

void setCard()
{
    try
    {
        if (card != null)
        {
            int current_index = cards.IndexOf(card);
            card = cards[current_index + 1];
        }
        else
        {
            card = cards[0];
        }
    }
    catch (System.ArgumentOutOfRangeException e)
    {
        card = cards[0];
    }
}

One Page Pitches

After my research into magical realism in games, I wanted to find a quick way to explore some potential designs in the space. I decided to create some one-page pitches.

This is something I’ve seen at all the studios I’ve worked at, but was surprised to see very few examples of this style of document online. I used Canva for these, which is (mostly) free online alternative to powerpoint.

Dream Dilemma!

As I’d realized that DD! was in fact a Magical Friendship game, I started off with this. It let me get the template down without worrying about the actual design of the game, as I’d already made it!

Random Game Ideas

I boiled my Magical Friendship idea down to a formula of:

Important Relationship + Everyday Setting * Magical Influence = Change in Outlook

This is obviously very reductive, but made for a nice way of generating story ideas quickly to let me brainstorm mechanics around them. I wrote down examples of each part of the formula and drew them at random, then created one pagers for my favorite combinations.

Cooking Murakami

Otherwise known as Co-Workers at a Fast Food Restaruant Encounter Ghosts.

The themes of being stuck, liminality and moving on are expressed though Alex’s position in life, Ronald’s position in brand-death and the common misconception that minimum wage jobs are temporary and not people’s livlihood.

I brought the calandar concept from Persona and merged it with the puzzle simulation mini-games of Cooking Mama or Papers, Please. With the core of the story being about the complicated emotions of the brand-spirits, I’ve got dialog in there too, riffing off of Christine Love’s timed dialog mechanic in Ladykiller in a Bind to promote the hectic feeling of working in a kitchen.

This idea is incredibly cursed, and I love it. When I said ‘this idea is like if Murakami designed Cooking Mama’, I knew I only had one choice for the title.

Island Obscura

or: Siblings on Holiday Encounter UFOs

In this one I explore the relationship between siblings by using co-op puzzle-traversal gameplay. Mechanics wise, I’m riffing on Unchartered, Tomb Raider and dungeons in Zelda but without any of the combat, to create an experience that feels like a more exciting version of a walking simulator. I wanted to get the discovery aspect of slower games in there.

Narrative wise, I wanted to use the way that Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus tells its story to speak about imagination. The main inspiration for this pitch comes from the time I tagged along on my friend’s stepdad’s diving holiday and the two of us were just dumped on South Uist with nothing to do. Our imaginations went wild, and we made up all sorts of things about the island’s residents and what certain pieces of architecture or ruins ‘really meant’. I’d like to blur the line between what’s real and what’s a shared dream of the kids and I intend to do this by telling the story in a way that is not explicit.

Rule the Scene!

Otherwise known as: A Found Family who are Mega-Fans of Something Encounter Faeries

With this, the first thing I latched onto was the similarity between the complex social hierarchy that exists in the Fey seelie and unseelie court mythos and the hidden rules and structure of social life in the music scene. I wanted to create something that focused on social climbing and intrigue without it being a VN/CHOA/dialog options only experience.

As such, I went with something card based, focusing on specific social interactions as battles. This was inspired by the idea of being able to ‘counter’ when met with brags or challenges to your knowledge of music or the scene.

Magically Real Mechanics

To follow on from my previous post on finding that the core of my ‘Magical Friendship’ vibe was a magical realism stint, I decided to take a quick look at some games I’ve played that employ magical realism as part of their story to see how their mechanics imbibe the genre. This is less a comprehensive review of mechanics and more a short brain dump!

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk on Steam

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Coffee Talk’s world feels rather magically realistic, as the setting is generally realistic and modern, bar the inclusion of fantasy races.

How is this shown through mechanics?

The main mechanic in Coffee Talk is drink making and serving while you listen to the patrons talk about their lives. Drink serving is used as a way to branch the story, and depending on what you serve their stories change. This feels slow and cosy, which brings in the glorification of the everyday element I discussed in my last post.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange (Time Travel, and the Mechanics of Point-and-Click  Adventure Games) | Gaming Backlog

Which aspect is magically realistic?

The world in Life is Strange is the real world, however our main character has time travel powers. These powers are not the focus, rather the focus is on the revival of old friendships and the question about whether you’d change the past if you could. This exploration of human questions though the fantasy element is indicative of the genre.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We traverse environments, picking up clues about the story then later get to use that information to make key decisions regarding characters. At certain points, the player can choose to time travel back to an earlier point, retaining the knowledge gained in order to change dialog options and open up more paths. This is a fairly literal interpretation of regret over the past as a mechanic.

Persona 4

Persona 4 Rainmeter : Rainmeter

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Everything about this game! The way mundane and magical concerns are placed alongside one another, the participation in the mc’s daily life and the TV, something very ordinary, as a vehicle for magical elements all make Persona 4 magically realistic.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We see glorification of the everyday and the elevated status of normal activities to sit alongside the fantasy hero narrative, as the game is split between the daily life and dungeon segments. Players must balance keeping up with school work, maintaining friendships and yearly events with their quest to find the murderer in the TV world. The way that social relationships affect the stats of the personas that are used in the RPG style battles show how the magical and real are intertwined in a way that supports the main themes of friendship, rebellion and longing for escape.

Papers, Please

Immigration as a game: 'Papers, Please' makes you the border guard - The  Verge

This game is not an example of magical realism, however I think the stamping and verifying mechanic is a great way to explore theme. Papers, Please is about the conflict between survival and providing for one’s family vs doing what’s right against an authoritarian state. Your work as a border guard is mundane, but can completely change someone’s life, potentially even dooming them to die by stamping a card one way or another.

Genre Quest: Magical Friendship

A couple of months ago, I intended to write a choose your own adventure game. I had the ChoiceScript IDE downloaded, its tutorials completed, and a vibe. Not a story outline, not a design doc, but a vibe. So of course, when I began to write this game, I didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. Now, I’ve ‘pantsed’ games before, but this wasn’t the sort of thing I could just write on the fly. Part of this unknown ‘vibe’, and a key element of game design according to the choice script standards was that the stats featured in the game would not only allow for player expression and multiple ways to play, but would communicate the themes and feelings I wished to explore within the narrative. That’s great, if you know what your themes are.

As such, I started analysing the media that served as inspiration for this enigmatic ‘vibe’ and, while that incarnation of the project is now dead in the water due to my realisation that I didn’t want to write a whole CYOA book’s worth of prose and that the setting was probably not for me to write, I discovered some interesting things about genre and type of media I like, so figured it was worth a write up. I’ll likely come back to this as a theme later down the line, and am interested to explore the potential within the kind of narrative I’ve outlined.

The main sources of inspiration for the project were The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Makoto Shinkai’s movies, Persona 4 and a light novel called Chain Mail. Initially, the main connection that I drew between these pieces of media were that they were Japanese in origin and I first encountered them when I was in my teens. This was not encouraging as I was concerned what I was hitting was personal nostalgia and not any particular genre, theme or convention. Via analysis I discovered that there was significantly more to link the properties than my own feelings, and I’m going to discuss each point of similarity below.

Escapism as a Form of Rebellion

The first link between these properties is the theme of escapism as a form of rebellion. In Haruhi, the titular character is bored with mundane life and struggles with the idea of insignificance in a world of so many people. As a response, she endeavors to live in a world full of aliens, time travellers and espers. (Unbeknownst to her, the members of her club the SOS Brigade are aliens, time travellers and espers – we’ll get to this point later.) She uses escapism and the search for media-like phenomena (this show is full of anime tropes) as a way to be different from her classmates and to rail against the world that made her feel insignificant.

Likewise in Chain Mail, the way the main characters – in particular Sawako and Mai – view their lives, is much like Haruhi Suzumiya’s perspective. They believe other people’s mundane concerns to be beneath them, and refuse to engage with conversation and activities they see as boring, like discussing idol TV programs or trying to meet their favorite bands.

Mai, Sawako and Mayumi all had trouble dealing with reality, and had only been able to connect with each other through fantasy. Was there something wrong with them? Or was the problem with a society that didn’t accept them? Or did both sides need to reach out more?

In contrast to Haruhi, who wishes that the real world had media-like crazy events, the characters in Chain Mail are adamant on keeping their forum separate from the real world, as they feel bringing any semblance of reality into the equation will taint it somehow – they will cease to be stalking victims and detectives and just be ordinary school girls. Their focus is on escapism over dealing with reality. This becomes a crux of the mystery, as despite the situation becoming potentially dangerous, each character refuses to meet or email the other girls with information, afraid it will ruin their fantasy.

In Weathering With You, Hodaka runs away from home as he is dissatisfied with living on a small island. The idea of being trapped or bored in a countryside setting is also explored in Persona 4, particularly in Yusuke’s story as we see him battle with guilt over feeling better than the small town of Inaba.

The central characters of all these works are teenagers, and while the desire to escape from one’s life can be present at any age, it is a fairly universal teenage trait to be looking towards the future and towards the freedoms that adult life will entail. The idea that there is a bit of a ticking clock and the characters will ultimatley have to decide to grow up or to defend their fantasty world was present in all of the media I studied and the resolutions to this question fell on a specturm between ‘fuck conformity’ and ‘joy can be found in the mundane’.

Glorification of the Everyday

Juxtaposed against the idea of escapism is the glorification of the everyday. This adds some thematic tension and is key to the particular feeling that these pieces of media invoke in their audience. A lot of the scenes in these pieces could be described as ‘cosy’ or ‘peaceful’, which stand out in contrast to their more action oriented moments.

In Chain Mail, we see one of the characters freed from a hectic schedule, and she takes the slow train, waxing lyrical about the sense of peace the train gives her.

…the air currents in the local stop trains whispered ‘it doesn’t matter what happens.

In Persona 4, we get to play not only RPG dungeons and boss fights, but dates, homework and hanging out at the local department store, for lack of anything else to do. While it is possibly portrayed as less idyllic here – especially with the malcontent some characters express towards small town life – we go through the daily routines of our heroes and find joy in the small moments together. P4 also features seasonal events that match with the Japanese high school calendar, such as holidays, exams and school trips. This immerses the player in the cycles and routines of the characters and makes daily life a fun gameplay mechanic.

Haruhi also features this, with events such as Tanabata wishes, Tests of Courage and Baseball games. While these are anime tropes, they derive from real life events.

As well as calendar events, global brands drive this familiarity. These are almost modern myths – common symbols that we all understand and relate to in some way. This is prevalent in Weathering with You, as it features many advertisements in the environment design and Hina working at McDonalds is key to the plot.

In general, Weathering with You features some particularly great examples of the magic of the everyday, with there being something warm and delightful about Hodaka’s chores montage and the cooking scene in Hina’s apartment.

‘My days were hectic but for the first time someone was relying on me.’

In Haruhi, one of the slowest episodes, yet one that comes to mind when I think about the general feel of the show, is one where they just hang around the club room for most of it. Kyon fetches a heater in the cold; Harhui and Mikuru take photos. It invokes nostalgia for a time where we could just do that. Hang around after school, nowhere to be and nothing to get done.

It’s the feel from this episode, especially in comparison with the more crazy ones, that invokes the theme at the heart of the anime – finding joy in the mundane. Haruhi spends all of her time wishing things were fantastical, but the thing that prevents her from destroying the world is a kiss from Kyon – the very ordinary boy she spends all her time with. The happiness and fulfilment is found not in the extra-ordinary, but in the connections between the group as they search for such things. Ultimately, you could say that the real aliens, time travellers and espers were the friends they made along the way. (Yep, that’s what I’m going with.)

The Real Time Travellers, Aliens and Espers Were the Friends We Made Along the Way

By which, I really mean use of Magical Realism. Magical Realism is defined by Wikipedia as:

…a style of fiction and literary genre that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements, often deals with the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality…Despite including certain magic elements, it is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.

All of these properties contain magical or fantastical events to some degree, and generally these elements are key to the escapism and rebellion that the characters are expressing. It is however, these themes and the human aspect of the story that form the core of the narrative, not the magic.

A major example of how magic is used to make a point about the key themes I’ve established is where we see a group of teens that must investigate a mystery that adults do not understand. This is the sunshine girl in Weathering with You, the TV world in P4, the strange happenings around Haruhi and the disappearance of Sawako in Chain Mail. We see an us against the world sentiment, focusing on friendship and elevating everyday bonds, and a rebellious streak, showing the gap between teenagers and adults.

In Weathering With You, we see the magical experiences of children and teenagers, and the magical wisdom of older folk, but working age adults are generally ignorant. Even the head of the occult magazine doesn’t believe in the occult, and his profession makes him somewhat of an outcast in the adult world. The magical phenomenon is used as a metaphor for the pressure of the adult world and the need to conform and fit in, again coming back to our central theme.

Just exploring themes with fantastic elements is not enough to define a piece of media as Magical Realism however. This is a common enough trait of fantasy and sci-fi, particularly those that fall on the more literary side of things. What really makes these properties magically real is the way that the real world and the magical sit alongside each other, without much explanation. The author never attempts to codify or create hard systems for the fantasy elements, instead leaving them as an ambiguous vehicle for theme and character-driven plot.

We see this in Haruhi, where the question of whether she is God is never really answered, as the answer is instead, it doesn’t matter. We also see it in Weathering with You, where elements of Shinto and Japanese folklore are used to fuel the magical elements of the story but are never explained beyond contradicting rumors that we hear from various older folks.

In Weathering with You in particular, the magic is somewhat mundane. Hina’s ability to control rain only affects a small area and the problems it solves are real, everyday ones, like not cancelling a flea market or fireworks display. Rain is a universal, everyday problem. This is true of our other pieces as well, with a possible kidnapping being a misunderstanding in Chain Mail and alien powers being used to win hackathons and baseball games in Haruhi.

This magic is always set alongside and compared to everyday things, using the glorification of the everyday we discussed above. We see this when fish fall from the sky as Hodaka has his first visit to a girl’s house in Weathering with You, or when Kyon finds a love letter in his locker in Harhui, which leads to an alien battle in a pocket dimension. These first-love sort of events are incredibly nerve wracking and important in the real world, and these feelings are never diminished, with the magical storyline having equal if not less import.

Magical Realism

With all this in mind, I wondered if I had just come across a name for a genre that I’d been enjoying without knowing that it was in fact a genre. I had been concerned that the ‘vibe’ I was chasing was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon and wouldn’t translate well to a Western setting, so exploring literature and fiction with a wider cultural heritage seemed like a good way to test this theory.

I had read Kafka on the Shore not too long before exploring these themes, and while it certainly had this core of teenage rebellion and magical realism, it was considerably darker in tone than the other pieces I explored and didn’t feel like a good fit for my ‘vibe’.

In addition, I read a number of short stories in the genre from a few different cultural backgrounds, including the opening of Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is credited with sparking the entire genre. While some of these stories were charming and all had strange phenomena set alongside the real world (a particular favorite was Americca by Aimee Bender), they never quite held the same feeling I was chasing.

While these pieces of writing were all Magically Realistic, they did not share the same themes as my original inspirations. There was no teenage escapism, and the portrayal of the everyday was considerably darker in tone. I was looking for more than just genre.

For the next step in my quest, I turned to film. Particularly, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Funnily enough, this just so happened to be another film that I enjoyed when I was a teenager, but had later on disliked for what I saw as more problematic elements. It does actually exemplify many of the traits I’ve discussed so far. Its incorporation of magical, video game inspired elements into a realistic world of music subculture and this as a vehicle for telling the story of Scott’s romantic drama makes it a good example of Magical Realism. The young, slacker type characters, with their derision of their home city of Toronto as not-as-cool as Montreal or New York exemplify the teenage escapism and rebellion aspect. Here, music and video games take the place of folklore or religion as the myth-making vehicle for shared symbols and motifs that drive the magic.

Like the other properties, Scott Pilgrim never seeks to explain its magic, dismissing the hyperspace corridor in Scott’s head with ‘I forgot they don’t have those in Canada.’ and seamlessly weaving the narrative of fighting evil exes with more mundane concerns such as cheating and trying to get noticed as a band.

Its key themes are explored though its fantastical elements, with Ramona being quite literally Scott’s dream girl and Ramona’s dilemma of people getting hurt because of her coming out as a physical fight with evil exes.

The glorification of the everyday is less present in this movie, as the main characters lead fairly chaotic lives, but we still see the routine element come out when we see Scott and Knives’ date is repeated twice to show the change in their relationship. Often, the everyday is less glorified than elevated, with video game sound effects used during key moments to make it feel like the characters are gaining something, winning or levelling up.

Despite the similarities, Scott Pilgrim vs The World didn’t fit into my ‘vibe’ either. Not entirely.

One of the things that is most dissonant between what I’m exploring and Scott Pilgrim is that of a core group of friends against the world. Here, everyone knows everyone to their detriment, as this causes untold amounts of drama.

The largest issue however, is with the lack of sincerity. While this movie shares a lot of the key themes I’ve highlighted, it lacks an emotional core that really made me invest in the other properties. The main character is utterly unlikable, and there is a disaffected and aloof air to the movie that makes it difficult to take seriously. While Scott grows to be less of an asshole to the women in his life, it doesn’t really feel as if the characters grow due to their bonds and face growing up. In fact, Scott and Ramona sort of just run away.

Despite this, it has given me confidence that the themes and genre are not particular to Japanese culture and therefore could be successfully explored in a Western setting. I’ll update this space if I do find something that fulfills all my criteria – I’m sure it’s out there!

Magical Friendship

So, having explored all these different properties, I came up with a framework for my ‘vibe’.

It must:
– Contain elements of magical realism.
– Explore themes of escapism and rebellion.
– Glorify the everyday so that it sits alongside the magical elements in terms of importance and reverence.
– Have a sincere emotional core that focuses on friendship.

For now, I’ve chosen to refer to it as ‘Magical Friendship’. While this isn’t all encompassing, it does well enough to describe this very particular feeling that I’m looking to achieve.

In my next post on this subject, I aim to explore how this Magical Friendship theme could be used in a game narrative.

Enter The Mansion Card Assets

The next step for Enter The Mansion – my procedural card based adventure game – was to convert the sets of data for each card into assets that can be authored outside of C#.

I inherited from scriptable object for my card asset, which let me generate new instances of the object as resources in the asset database.

using UnityEngine;

[CreateAssetMenu(fileName = "Data", menuName = "ScriptableObjects/Card_Asset", order = 1)]
public class Card_Asset : ScriptableObject
{
    public string ID;
    public string title;
    public string body;
    public string body2;
    public string choice;
}

It was then fairly simple to get all the assets in the cards folder using the AssetDatabase functions which fits into what I’d already written to pick a random card and populate the UI with its information.

    void PopulateList()
    {
        string[] assetNames = AssetDatabase.FindAssets("", new[] { "Assets/Cards" });
        foreach (string name in assetNames) {
            var assetPath = AssetDatabase.GUIDToAssetPath(name);
            var card = AssetDatabase.LoadAssetAtPath<Card_Asset>(assetPath);
            cards.Add(card);
        }
    }

This is a step in the right direction, however the editor for the asset remains unfriendly to the user. There’s not enough room in the box to type out a whole paragraph, and there’s no spellcheck. The ID field also needs to either be generated by the system or forced to be unique. Thinking about how to make this useable is the next step!