What I’ve Been Playing Dec 2020 – Jan 2021

I had been doing monthly ‘What I’ve Been Playing’ posts over on my now defunct narrative design blog, which served as a nice way for me to articulate what I enjoyed/thought worked about the games I’ve been playing and served as a bit of shorthand analysis. Though I wasn’t making the most astute observations – I am still fairly new to the narrative design side of game development – it served as a good incentive to ‘play like a designer’. (I do play games like a tech artist, but that mostly consists of zooming in on textures and trying to eyeball framerate issues…)

I’ll do one for February soon, but in the meantime, here’s my thoughts from December through January. Unlike the other posts I’ve moved over, this isn’t edited so proceed with caution, I guess?

December

Choice of Romance

Choice of Romance is an interactive fiction piece using the Choice of Games engine. I really enjoyed this, though it felt a little short – I have sequels to play though!

The opening to this game was great – we are thrust straight into the action with a barn fire that sets up a pastoral setting, the fact you have siblings and that there’s magic in the world. It also allows the player a choice that shows part of their personality.

One thing that’s excellent about all the choice of games I’ve played so far is the character customisation. They allow you to play as multiple genders, customise your look and pick a name from a list of setting appropriate names.

The way these choices are presented are very nice. For example, when you decide what you want out of your forthcoming adventure, you make a wish on a butterfly, and when you decide your eye colour you are looking in the mirror. They are small elements, but these make the choices feel immersive and part of the narrative, rather than like using a character creator at the start of a game. Its nice to not have these all lumped in together – you don’t get a full description of a character at the start of a book – but is wise to keep them near to the beginning before the player has a picture of the character in their head.

Having a description of what your character looks like, despite there being no sprite or model for them is really cool. It brings me into the story if I have a strong image of who I am playing as. I tend not to play as myself in these, but play them multiple times as different characters.

I was slightly disappointed that you could only play as straight or gay for the romances and that there was no bi option, but the choice of the main character’s sexuality determines the gender of the love interests, so I see why it was done this way.

Same character, different gender is something I’ve encountered a couple of times in Choice of Games and it is a really interesting concept. The character’s speech, actions and much of their description is the same but their pronouns are changed. This is great for catering to people who want to play as different sexualities, but its also incredibly interesting in terms of how the character is seen and their social dynamics.

There was one character in this game who was described as unattractive, boring and rich. They are the safe but unromantic marriage option; the person you marry out of duty not love. When I played as a straight man, she seemed someone to be pitied, a little desperate but harmless. When I played as a straight woman, he seemed creepy and predatory. They had exactly the same dialog.

I figured this was to do with social expectations and my own internal biases, but couldn’t figure out if it was the gender of the love interest or the gender of my player character that was swaying my opinion. As such, I decided to see how she came across when I played as a lesbian woman. She was somewhere in the middle – she seemed less harmless, but the pity came through too.

This is far too complex an issue to tackle in a wee blog most about games I’ve been playing, but overall it came down to the idea that as women we are socialised to have our guard up and be on the lookout for potential violence, especially coming from men. Even in this fictional gender neutral setting, my own learned behaviours are coming through.

Whether this is a right or wrong thing to think, many people do think this way, so considering the wider social views on my characters, both in the real world and in their fictional world, could add something to my writing.

On a completely different subject, I thought the pacing of the story was interesting. Some events, even entire months were glossed over, where other moments were seen in great detail. This is something I’ve struggled with in my own work so would like to practice.

Speaking of practice, I’d like to try out a character creation segment for myself, and possibly even give the Choice of Games engine a go, as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve played from it so far!

Perfumare

Perfumare is a dark fantasy visual novel available on itch.io.

Like Choice of Romance, Perfrumare doesn’t show you your player character, but allows you to choose your gender and clothing choice, this time while looking through a shop window. Its another nice, natural hook that allows the player to define themselves.

The AD in this game is great. Chromatic aberration on everything is such a mood. The sound is also great. There’s no music, but the ambient sfx really sets the mood.

This game had a really excellent writing style. I liked the longer sentences and strong use of similes for description. I’m struggling to find the words for why these are so good, so I’m just going to dump some of my favourite excerpts here.

“His eyes lock with yours, just as the door snaps open, with a long, deep rasp that brings you back to reality with a start.”

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, a pungent oder of death reaches your nose, heavy like steel and clogging like ash.”

“Something stirs in your mind, blaring like raid sirens; an echo of screams and endless darkness.”

“There’s a click of the floor button being chosen, then the ping and glide of the door, the humming noise of working machinery, the shift of the ground.”

“But the dizziness returns tenfold, knocking you off your feet so unexpectedly you smack your knee against the bed frame in your haste to stay standing.”

Obey Me!

This game was a mistake.

Obey Me has been advertised and recommended to me a lot, as I’ve downloaded dating games and other ‘girly’ games on mobile. The pestering broke me down and I figured I’d give it a go, thinking it was a visual novel/dating sim.

It is not.

It is a card collecting, gatcha, dance game with some visual novel story sections and a messaging app.

In its defence, this game is incredibly polished, has excellent Japanese voice acting and, despite its proclivity to spam you with notifications, doesn’t actually prompt you to spend money very often. If you are after a card collecting, gatcha, dance game, I think you’d be quite happy, but, like many mobile games, that is not what it is advertised as.

Now, it does have many romance elements – it has the aforementioned visual novel and messenger elements, alongside a gift giving and touch system not unlike the skinship system in Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side – a game that I will defend with my dying breath. However, the issue was that you know nothing about these men. You are thrown into their world, given a quick introduction to some of them based on deadly sin archetypes (not necessarily a bad thing – give me a well written trope any day) and, that’s it. You can now give them gifts and touch them. It felt weird, and non-consensual. I know these are pictures on a screen, yet I felt like a creep just touching this man’s hair who I knew nothing about beyond ‘hot demon boy’. I think moments like that need to feel earned and come from a place where its clear both characters want it in order to feel like a nice bit of romance gaming and not some creepy objectification thing.

Beyond this, I had to do a lot of dancing to get to any plot, much of which was not interesting. It appears to be slice of life so far, which is great when you have interesting and engaging characters, but not so much when you know very little about said characters. I also found the writing to be somewhat awkward, with unnatural sounding dialog, which I believe is probably down to translation.

I’m uninstalling this before I’m complied to play more. Despite thoroughly disliking this game, I seem to keep being drawn by these push notifications.

January

The Uncle That Works For Nintendo

https://ztul.itch.io/the-uncle-who-works-for-nintendo

The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo' is your childhood insecurities made  creepy flesh - The Verge

I’d had this sitting in my itch ‘To Play’ collection for ages, and had forgotten why I’d added it. I was expecting a short, silly horror game without much substance and I was proved wrong delightfully.

I went back and explored every option here in order to learn how the game worked and get every ending. It being short to run through once was much appreciated here!

The premise involves being a kid and staying over at your friend’s house. She boasts about her uncle who works at Nintendo, you talk about school, fight or stay friends. Depending on how you speak to your friend, and how much you probe her inner thoughts, you can realize that there’s something sinister about her uncle, who is arriving at midnight. Why has everyone forgotten her brother ever existed, and what price did she have to pay for all these new video game consoles?

Tugging on nostalgia, it invokes that kid at school who always had some outrageous boast, alongside featuring a creepypasta/urban legend type feel. I’m a sucker for nostaliga and internet horror, but there’s something more about this game that makes it so good.

Gameplay wise, its a choice based game; however the addition of optional elements that seemingly provide flavor text, but are later revealed to change the options the player has available to them, elevates its complexity. It also features time management, as the clock counts down to the uncle’s arrival. In playthroughs after the first, the player will be trying to figure out how to make the most of this time to give them new options when the uncle arrives, or trying to leave before that happens.

The game is just excellent aesthetically too. The sound is fantastically spooky, the writing quality is good and the abstract visuals, which I’ve seen used unsuccessfully in a fair few visual novels, work well in complementing the abstract terror that is the uncle.

Vampire The Masquerade: Night Road

Vampire: The Masquerade - Night Road Revs Up the World of Darkness

This is a Choice of Games book based on the ttrpg.

The setting was very interesting, and while I don’t remember there being a lot of descriptive text, I did come away with a rich picture of the world.

I enjoyed the game, however I got a very sudden ending, which I suspect may have been down to mechanics and stats not being appropriately telegraphed or tutorialised. I understand a tutorial is not very immersive and is the last thing you want in a game like this, but as far as I can tell it was using mechanics from the tabletop game, which are significantly more complex than a typical Choice of Game.

Part of me thinks discovering how the stats work through play is a good thing (though would be better if your character was as green as you), but the shock ending where I was going about my tasks and unknown folk just burst into my apartment and killed me was really dissapointing, especially as I wasn’t able to save the game. All my hard work, just gone. Now – that could be saying something! About the fleeting nature of life, random acts of cruelty but honestly, as much as message is important, tragedy has to be cathartic, and that was just unearned and locked me out of my experience.

I believe there is a Storyteller Mode which displays stats, so I may try the game this way and see how I feel about it.

Monsterhearts

Monsterhearts 2 - Buried Without Ceremony

This one is a tabletop rpg. I believe there’s a lot of overlap between IF and RPGs, so figured I’d talk about it!

The low-prep, improvisational nature of this one is quite new to me. I normally run D&D with a heinous amount of prep – think writing an entire source book prior to playing a run shot. I think this is good for me as a storyteller to get used to thinking on my feet a little more. Having said that, the best way to be able to improvise well in a way that makes sense and ties together nicely is, in my optinion, having a solid grasp on your world, so I did spend time prepping the location and its key factions. Having these factions make moves against each other in the background, regardless of player interaction, puts them at the center of a thriving world and means there’s always some kind of danger to walk into.

Talking of danger, one of my critiques of my story is the constant escalation. There was a running joke that we were just playing Riverdale, and I do feel like our session shared the common criticisms of that show! Things went from ‘who’s going to the party’ to ‘a character’s parent has been murdered and a gang is taking over the town’ very quickly.

In terms of the game system itself, I really enjoy how the rules convey typical teenage experiences, and the focus on relationship building over combat. Its also rules-lite which is absolutely my jam. Nothing like a maths session to break immersion! (Looking at you level 15 D&D campaign.)

In particular, the seating chart, where the group collaboratively builds NPCs, is a delight. Keeping track of 15 NPCs during game is not though – and even then I struggled to have a character for every situation. We’re playing a new setting soon, so I hope we’ll be able to include more diversity in the NPC dynamics to make sure they fit every potential situation.

Final Fantasy XIV

Legacy FFXIV Title | Final Fantasy XIV | Know Your Meme

MMOs are a genre of game that I have always loved the idea of and never actually enjoyed. I partly blame the mythos developed around them by the ‘we got stuck in the game’ style stories I saw a lot as a young person – Digimon and .Hack come to mind, but by the time I was playing these games, I already had a picture of a much richer experience than I would actually receive. I imagined I’d meet new people who I’d form bonds with for life, that hanging out with them in the game would be as fulfilling as a real life friendship. I imagined I’d be a hero, standing out from others in the game and joining in on massive events.

Perhaps if I ever got to raids/dungeons/high level content in these games I would get a glimpse of something akin to what I imagined an MMO would be, but the grind to get there is far too long for someone conscious of their time (they say, writing a blog post about video games… ;)).

There’s just nothing exciting about killing 10 wolves, or clearing a cellar of rats. I believe the true fantasy here is not being a hero, but having easily managed tasks that can be ticked off a to do list. How many of us have a constant to do list and feel like its never done? The whole thing, at this level at least, feels very passive. Click the button, get the task done, get the level up music. Almost skinnerbox like.

While I understand that there’s a strong appeal in a game like this, especially to those who just need to tune out, its not why I play games. Playing FFXIV was fine, but I don’t want to spend my time on fine. I’m just as passive watching a TV show, and then I’m getting drama, I’m getting a story. I’m just very driven by those concepts when engaging with media.

Being a story gamer though, I am loathe to admit that I skipped a great deal of the dialog. I just don’t want to sit and listen to why ‘S’hojobi’ (The names in this game are…something.) needs me to kill rats. Its not engaging. It doesn’t lead to a larger plot point, it doesn’t teach you anything about her as a character. She’s just a to do list deliverer.

I’m still considering playing more to see if its any different at high levels and in a group, but I’m not sold. If anything, I’ve found the imagined experience elsewhere – what was that initial description but a game of D&D?

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