Play it if: you want to read a story you can admire, a short, brutal punch of a game that'll stick in your mind for a long time to come.
Don't play it if: you're out of room in your heart for bleak truths.
How sarcastic I must seem, using such grim terms about a game that advertises itself so lightly.
To be honest, it took me about three playthroughs of Horse Master to really grasp what I felt about it. On the one hand it's a tragedy of desperate ambition, but at the same time it's a snigger-inducing parade of the absurd and the grotesque. Half the time I felt like I was being asked to laugh and cry at the same time, so I ended up doing neither and instead just feeling emotionally mangled.
The story is on the surface that of a person rearing and training a horse for a prestigious competition. The immediate twist is that the "horse" in this case is not really a "horse" as we know it, but appears to be some sort of mammoth crustacean grown from a larval stage. Much of the sheer oddness of the game is derived from the contrast between the glowing, admiring terms in which the horses are described and the true details of their appearance, which are left a little vague but sound anything but noble or graceful to the common reader.
Of course the more important twist is that it's not really a fun, quirky horse-raising sim at all. That's just the foot in the door.
Say what you will in its defense, but to the uninitiated it's not so different. To achieve competitive success as a bodybuilder, a person has to exercise, diet, gorge, dehydrate, medicate, and groom themselves obsessively to warp their bodies into extreme forms. They risk and experience poverty, ridicule, and failure in turning themselves into something that is ultimately decorative. They don't perform astounding feats of strength or agility. They pose.
Speaking purely as an outsider, there's something terribly tragic to that sort of lifestyle, or at least to the way it's seen by much of the world. That men and women can invest so much of themselves into an endeavor which is so often thankless.
As odd a decision it might seem to have the horses not be mammalian, I think there was a purpose to it, and that purpose was to emphasize just how un-beautiful this sort of thing can really be. Some types of dog shows maintain frankly arbitrary and ridiculous standards for their competitors. To me, weirdo that I am, breeding creatures for their aesthetic value to humans is something deeply disturbing and abhorrent - but their aesthetic value often inoculates us to the ethical concerns. In Horse Master, we don't have that illusion. The creatures being bred and displayed are not the kinds of things that inspire joy and awe in the minds of My Little Pony fans.
It's a value dissonance of the kind present in the assassination-training scene of howling dogs, though here its purpose is much clearer: to make us reconsider our questionable relationships with the animals who inhabit our lives.
(Spoiler - click to show)I think it's somehow fitting that the ending will always destroy someone in the balance. Either the player loses everything and has no future outside of poverty and obscurity, or the horse dies in an exploitative, orgiastic display. Either the player character is crushed by a world which does not really care about her existence, or the horse is slaughtered by a system and a protagonist who does not really care about its wellbeing. You're a bodybuilder, or you're a dog breeder. The perpetrator or the victim.
It's not very uplifting. But it is compelling in its own way. And it sort of gives you pause for thought, doesn't it?
Play it if: you want a short, sweet game with a smoothly-implemented gameplay gimmick.
Don't play it if: you prefer gameplay to be accompanied by a fleshed-out story, because in narrative terms this does feel a bit incomplete.
The most memorable aspect of this game is immediately noticeable: verbs of movement are discarded in favor of an alternative mode of transportation, and EXAMINING a place is what takes you to it. What impresses me more than the coding (not that I'm a wizard, but I can make a couple of guesses at how it was done) is the manipulation of English in order to make the effect seamless.
A common flaw in descriptive writing is the provision of information that confounds the mind's natural means of acquiring that information. For instance, in an oft-quoted sequence from the novel Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, the observing character is implied to be standing some distance from the lady he is observing. But then:
"Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon."
The reader is confused on two counts: first, the assertion that the moon has a fragrance (which given that's located in space, is impossible); and second, that the observing character can smell her face - specifically - from more than arm's length. In Silk and Steel, this is just poor writing. In Castle of the Red Prince, though, it's twisted into a means of travel. Essentially, examining locations from a distance will often bridge the spatial gap by simply beginning to provide information that would be unavailable from your original location. Coding aside, it's a fascinating linguistic trick.
(I should mention that this gimmick plays havoc with your ability to appreciate the relative locations of things, but given the small size of this world it's not really a major drawback.)
What's also interesting about this device is that it's left ambiguous to what degree this travel is simply a novel description of normal movement, and to what degree it's a form of sorcery available to the player character. This also leads into a minor disappointment I experienced: the player character has a sort of ambiguity which is suggestive of depth, but that depth is never really exploited. I mean, in theory the PC's dreams are being haunted by this Red Prince, but it's not used for much more than a basic motivator to tell the player what they're doing in the game. The Red Prince's rather blase attitude to your machinations, couple with the contents of a certain book, made me think that the PC was the Red Prince's son, or that the Red Prince had some sort of personal role in the PC's dreams and backstory. None of this appeared to be true, which is a bit of a shame.
The point is not to judge Castle by the arbitrary standards of my personal imaginary alternate universe for this game, but to point out that this game ignited my curiosity in a way it wasn't prepared to engage. In fact, the story itself is not particularly engaging, lacking much in the way of twists. The titular antagonist knows what you're doing from quite early on, but he'll be damned if he expends any energy on trying to actually stop you - and speaking here as a reader rather than a game-player, seeing that sort of thing feels like it's the story itself expressing this attitude to me (though I'm hardly going to go about accusing the author of laziness). Victor Gjisbers's The Baron might have been fairly unremarkable gameplay-wise but it made better use of a similar sort of premise.
On the whole, then, I have to agree with previous comments that this is a better experiment than a game. It's not that it's a bad game, it's just that what actually happens in it is barely enough to fill a two-page short story.
Play it if: as with Gun Mute, you want a game short and easy enough to breeze through but quirky and different enough to be memorable.
Don't play it if: you get turned off by dodgy pacing or an absence of any strong sense of story, because while this game has a number of great set-pieces it doesn't really feel like a streamlined, complete narrative.
Elements of Rogue of the Multiverse reminded me of Gun Mute. Non-human NPCs with human-like behaviors. A stoic protagonist of few words. The eschewment of compass directions. Gameplay consisting of repeatedly achieving the same goal, but with subtly differing details. And an environment whose nature is revealed more through small, evocative details than verbal exposition.
While I do prefer Gun Mute to this game, Rogue of the Multiverse still carried a couple of elements that delighted me and made it absolutely worth playing.
First is the main character, the antagonist Dr. Sliss, who subjects the PC to scientific experimentation. Sliss does superficially resemble GLaDOS in that she is a pleasant-speaking female taskmaster, but I find her a good deal funnier and more likable because while GLaDos is pretty obviously malevolent, Sliss is well-meaning but rather ignorant. Her patronizing comments to the PC, such as offers of banana rewards (she has trouble distinguishing between you and a rather hairless chimp), are perfectly balanced to get you liking her against your better nature. And in spite of the potentially lethal conditions to which she subjects you, I was very happy to see the game give the player the option to develop their relationship with her.
Second is what is arguably the central element of gameplay, the resource-gathering exercise. Normally I should find this sort of thing to be tedious: fewer things turn me off to modern RPGs faster than being asked to perform dull, repetitious resource-gathering tasks. But it works a lot better here than it has any right to, partly because it's quite easy and fast-moving (turn-based time will do that for you), and partly because each procedurally-generated world is given just environmental detail to make it a little memorable. You can encounter security robots in industrial complexes and rock-hurling apes in mountain ranges. The description is sparse, as it would have to be, but it a Zork-like way the concise description allows the imagination to fill the gaps.
Third is the vehicle sequence. I loved this scene. It pulled off the kind of urgency and excitement I so enjoyed in Gun Mute - again, we're not talking about real-time events here! (Spoiler - click to show)Sliss's shooting and dialogue during this sequence do a lot both to keep the scene fun and varied and to increase my adoration of her character. It's difficult to describe what made it work for me on a visceral level, but that's just another reason you should check out Rogue for yourself.
I did say that I preferred Gun Mute, of course. This game is a lot less streamlined than Gun Mute: structurally speaking, it's more like two or three games stuck onto one another than a complete experience in and of itself. Finishing Gun Mute gave me the satisfaction of a completed story; in the case of Rogue of the Multiverse, though, it's difficult to know when the story is supposed to end - I identified about two or three different points at which it could plausibly have ended, only for the game to continue so as to depict events which, frankly, didn't really need depicting. This is a short game, but it's not exactly concise; the endgame is dragged out a little unnecessarily. I also can't help but feel that the resource-gathering game offers a lot of room for expansion into a fuller game. Yes, the procedurally-generated environments are part of the point and yes, repeating the missions as they're written here for a long game would get tiresome fairly quickly, but there's definitely more that can be done with the basic idea.
Ultimately, though, none of these issues will by any means preventing you from enjoying yourself here. It's a light, humorous, not-too-long romp in an imaginative sci-fi setting and deserving of a look.
This is not a game. But you should play it, because it is a personal essay on identity and in this regard it is well-written and interesting.
Don't play it if you are looking primarily for a game or a story, though I recommend you check it out as some point in any case.
Fogged Up Mirror is interactive fiction more or less the way you have to interact with a browser to visit a web site. There is a recurring image of words being wiped off a mirror, which strikes me as a rather interesting means of tackling something like identity labels; unless actively wiped off, a word written on a mirror will fade but show up again when the mirror is fogged up. Labels persist unless we take conscious action against them.
Nevertheless, this image is used sparsely and Twine is employed here less as a cinematic technique than as a sort of filing system. The reader picks different categories of identity and hears the author's introspection on her self-perception through these categories. Holland delivers her thoughts in honest, straightforward language that makes them accessible. I don't necessarily mean "accessible" in the sense of "will convince bigoted people of the validity of her position"; what I mean is that his thoughts remind me of what I've thought about my own identity. Her words are spoken the way I speak them in my head. The thoughts are not at heart judgmental, though they can express frustration with people. There isn't any attempted ethical justification for choosing these labels or inhabiting these identities; the underlying, intuitive assumption is that the author deserves respect by virtue of being a human being, which is probably the best universal reason to be OK with exploring identity in this way.
"Labels don't matter much, until they really do." That's the opening sentence. In the way that words on a mirror appear when you breathe on them, identities often don't occur to people until they're challenged. I never gave much thought to my sexuality until my social circles became largely composed of non-straight people. I had little sense of my gender until I started to live in a national culture which prized masculinity above most human qualities. As a result I felt a kinship with the author, even though in many ways his personal experiences are different to mine.
I rate Fogged Up Mirror four stars because, low interactivity aside, Twine's use is appropriate here: none of the identities you can choose to explore are given priority of placement over the other, encouraging you to read them and discard them in any order. And the content is not unique in any surface sense, but it engages the reader and is worth your time. Read it not for art or gameplay or story, but for a simple, elemental glimpse into someone else's head.