Starting with the story of Stanley Milgram's psychological experiments, The Milgram Parable reads like an allegory, using the setting of a corporate militia. All the elements are there: unquestioning obedience, limited information and one to one meetings with superiors. I guess the sporadic binary choices come with the narrative territory, too.
So the game forces you to make increasingly abstract choices. Showing compassion at the start of the game yields the admonishment that you are quick to judge using very little information; this is what the game forces you to do. Ironic? Purposeful? Maybe. The scope of the game is so narrow, the stakes and emotional impact so vague, that the decisions start to feel academic.
This is a surreal story about… having your phone in your mouth. It’s more cyberpunk than it sounds, promise, and delivers a complete narrative arc in not very many words at all.
Arnott captures the craving for that rush of neurotransmitters that social media is designed to deliver, but transforms it into something a bit more insidious. (Spoiler - click to show)The titular phenomenon (yes) forms a whole subculture by itself, into something meshed into the fabric of society.
Phone in Mouth is less of a fully-formed dystopian story, but almost more like a thought experiment. It ponders what wearable technologies could possibly look like, then what it might look like when it all goes wrong. It is a little on the nose as a cautionary tale, with shades of 1984 - but then again, looking behind the scenes at companies like Amazon seems to suggest that whatever you can imagine, there’s probably a company doing worse.
The game world suggests one accustomed to sudden, almost comic violence, where one’s weapons are identity. The comic aspect, however, takes some of the edge (ahem, mind the pun) off: to aid surgery, for instance, the PC comes with a “pectoral zipper”.
The world described here is festering and disgusting, but with the embellished, ornate language, the terse phrasing, we readers are, at least, one step away from all that.
(Spoiler - click to show)It is striking that there are no completely happy endings here. There is no escape to a less violent future - not without relinquishing your identity as a knife punk. As much as I would love to see more in the same universe, I get the feel that this universe is most intriguing in small snippets.
Bloody Raoul is brutish and short, but not nasty at all. If you liked this, you might like The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw, from the same author.
[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes]
Yesterday explores what happens when the excitement over and the gilt is peeling. You are Lucy Newman, in eighth grade, but yesterday you were a Stellar Warrior. You had to face off The Void alone. And today, you have to wake up and go to school.
Two groups came to mind, reading this, who would probably identify with the PC strongly.
The first: those labelled as “gifted” in childhood. The burden of expectation from family, school, society lies on you, but you get all the wrong support. All the support to develop your abilities - to win all the competitions, ace all the exams - and too little to equip you emotionally and psychologically.
The second: those who do jobs that require them to run towards danger - emergency services, healthcare, mental health services, social work. You are the help that people call for. Sometimes you face things that terrify you, absolute disasters on a scale big or small, and you run out of resources, knowledge and wits. Yet, you can’t abscond from your responsibilities, and when you go back into the “normal world”, you have no words to explain to your friends outside this line
Structurally, Yesterday flashes back and forth between the PC’s life as a schoolgirl and her previous magical girl life. This is further set off by a parallel choice structure. Yesterday also uses the limited choices afforded by the CYOA format to illustrate character development.
Amongst many other things - a vivid protagonist, thoughtful design, a subversion on the magical girl narrative - Yesterday is a really good example of how a choice-based narrative can play with choices to reinforce the story.
[Content warning: depicted violence, suicide.]
In Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC), you’re invited to join your neighbour’s tiny after school club, the literature club. Even though your only exposure to literature is reading manga, the club members themselves are each compelling in their own way.
Much has been written about this game, by people who are much more familiar with visual novels than I am, so I won’t feign familiarity with the conventions of the visual novel genre. But judging from this game alone, it seems that visual novels, like parser games, are good at signalling inevitability. Unlike parser games, they can do this with long stretches of dialogue-heavy storytelling without any choices. DDLC uses this to its advantage, using its episodic format to set patterns and break them.
This game is deliberately vague in its advertising about its content warnings, since those are spoilers in themselves. These are big heavy subjects that the game mentions, though, and it’s mostly used as plot point rather than being discussed.
Some gripes, then. Some of the story elements didn’t feel gelled together. In particular the poetry-writing felt like a flimsy justification for the premise. Additionally, the way this story handles mental illness is pretty superficial - more plot point than anything else. This attitude is endemic in horror fiction in general. We can do better.
DDLC is probably more worth playing for seeing how the visual novel format can be subverted than for its actual storyline, and for its questioning of the divide between player-character and player. It displays some clever tricks, but tends to use violence and mental illness as a shock tactic. Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such as We also explores such metatextual issues, but far more thoughtfully.
The game opens with the player-character on the cusp of harming themselves. This is not a moment of impulse, not a “call for attention”. This is a culmination of seconds upon seconds, years of keenly feeling one’s lack of agency, in social situations and intimate ones.
What was slightly unusual was the mixing of divine and profane imagery and language, which portrayed the player-character’s action or inaction as a sort of reckoning with a faceless, unknown force.
Games like this are easily dismissed for their “navel-gazing”, but are well worth considering for what are often first-person, personal narratives of mental illness, discrimination and/or marginalisation. Games in a similar vein include Tapes, by Jenni Vedenoja, or All I do is Dream, by Megan Stevens.
Chandler Groover’s work often mixes the decadent with the grotesque, the macabre with the picturesque. Think rotting roses; mouldering filigree.
Here, bound in a prison made of food, your only way out is by eating.
Who knew that eating could be so visceral? This is not just simple eating, it is consumption for consumption’s sake, for pleasure, for satiation. This is not going to be a game for everyone: the descriptions are so detailed as to be cloying, and there is heavy use of cutscenes to denote scene transitions.
This game is generous in allowing the player to backtrack and figure out what to do. As the name suggests, the range of actions available for the player are limited to eating, with the occasional exception clearly signalled - similar, then, to Arthur DiBianca’s games, such as Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Inside the Facility.
Eat Me resembles Groover’s Bring Me A Head, both in setting and in grotesquerie: both set in crumbling castles, each compartment holding just one singular occupant, doomed, it seems, to pursue their one occupation for the rest of time. Eat Me is not for the faint-hearted, definitely, but well worth playing, perhaps alongside other games with a similar setting.
For a lighter version of an eating-oriented game, try Jenni Polodna’s Dinner Bell; for more of the same, Bring Me a Head and Open That Vein by the same author.
You are running. From what? Where to?
Digital Witnesses is set within a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world, one which regulates every step its citizens make, every role each person plays - think of your standard dystopia - think Brave New World and The Giver and The Island. You, your running: that is a spanner in the well-oiled works of the city.
The passage constraint means that, for economy, passages loop round. Chunks of backstory are revealed as you go along, and it gradually becomes clear what the stakes of this are on you. (Note the phrasing: this is dynamic fiction - not linear, because it is not told linearly, but without choices in the traditional story-altering sense either.)
The world building here is evocative, eschewing exhaustive detail for revealing it through actions and people. Perhaps the predictable setting and plot works for it - what else would a dystopian story be about other than escape? - since it allows the reader to fill in the details with their imagination, and allowing the reader to focus on the craft of the writing rather than the mechanics of the world. Certainly this was an enjoyable, short piece of dynamic fiction with the pacing of a movie.
You’re exploring a nuclear shelter - alone - on a dare. It’s not entirely clear what era this is set in, but it’s almost unnecessary, partly because the threat of powerful men doing rash things is ever present, partly because I suspect that was the intention - what matters is that nuclear shelters are a thing of the past, decommissioned, relics, ancient… but safe? Are they safe?
It’s hard to describe this without spoiling it, because the twist is one of the main things that holds this game together. Cutting out the spoilers makes it a very short piece of text, so I’d say you could safely go off, play it - it’s not long - and come back. I’ll wait. Minuteman is a bit of a mood piece, a piece of dynamic fiction, because of its linearity. It is more a relived memory than an adventure. I couldn’t quite follow the logic of the thing, but I certainly caught the mood, and its brevity gives it the intensity of a fever dream.
(Spoiler - click to show)By your actions - born of ignorance, but that is no excuse - you doom a whole town. You never see the havoc you wreak directly, but only ever observe it from a position of relative safety, which adds to the feeling of feverish detachment - like those dreams where you see disaster coming, but cannot move a muscle, cannot say a word. Text effects transform the piece from passive interaction with a static, dead place to one bristling with imminent threat, and while I don’t usually appreciate Harlowe’s default text effects, here I imagined them as different voices in a spoken performance.
Trapper is a private detective of the equine variety, and he’s been called in to assist the police in investigating the mysterious death of the mare Serene Lotus, who was seen to be behaving oddly before her death…
Like Owlor’s other games, this game borrows the anthropomorphised pony aesthetic of My Little Pony, but really it’s a neat noir/horror mix based on the urban legend of the Elevator Game, and evidently by the stories surrounding Elisa Lam’s death.
If you’re familiar with the urban legend, then it will perhaps be the implementation rather than the reveal of the core mystery that draws you in. If you aren’t: look past the benign-looking illustrations to the weird and horrifying amongst the mundane. Owlor’s line illustrations are used to great effect here (note, though, that the illustrations are not described in the text), and the screenplay-like format gives the sense of distance, of watching in from a CCTV ourselves.
The Elevator Game is a satisfyingly creepy implementation of an urban legend/creepy story that has made its rounds in certain corners of popular media.