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A deep world that's a little too hard to get into, December 13, 2020
I’m not sure what I ever did to it, but the Comp randomizer apparently has decided to punish me by stacking rock-hard games one after the other. WtWOBF (that’s an awful acronym, but I’m stymied for alternatives) is a Twine game with extraordinarily lavish production values – there are lovely paintings, some video, a fancy interface with plenty of neat flourishes – set in a compelling world that features hard-edged examinations of trauma and moral compromise in a fantasy version of the American Southwest. Unfortunately for me, I also found that the copious RPG-style mechanics layered on top of the story tended to take me out of it, and even when playing in “God mode” I hit dead ends, meaning I couldn’t finish the game in two hours.
Right, starting with the story side of things: the world is a major draw here, as there’s clearly a lot of thought that’s gone into the relationships between different sets of people, how to translate real-world events and situations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the meth epidemic into a fantasy context, and developing a big cast of distinct, appealing characters. Some of this world-building comes in a little clumsily (partially due to how it’s tied to the game mechanics, for which see below), and whenever it talks about guns the voice shifts into a hyper-detailed mode that I’m not sure serves the overall tone and worldbuilding well (like, was there a like were-badger engineer named Glock in this setting?) – but on the whole it’s compelling stuff, and the writing does a good job of anchoring these grounded themes and concerns in a world of magic and talking animals.
The situations presented by the plot are also pretty grabby. The opening frame story does a good job of evoking survivor’s guilt, and the other major segments I encountered, involving a teenager’s difficult relationship with her aunt, and a compromised man attempting to live a moral life in a world that doesn’t give people like him that choice, are also dealing with serious issues in a serious way. It definitely gets grim – pay attention to the content warning on this one, folks, and don’t discount it just because there are furries! – in a way that I sometimes found hard to take, but I think WtWOBF comes to those moments fairly.
The game side of things I thought didn’t work so well, and at times served to undermine the solid writing and intriguing dilemmas the narrative presents. There are several layers of mechanics at play here – the most obvious is an RPG system where you assign points to various skills or traits, like Brains or Swift Feet, during character creation. Then during play, occasionally these traits will be tested, and if you succeed you might see them increase while unlocking a bonus backstory, or if you fail they might decrease.
Beyond these traits, there’s also a “Lore” score that seems to gate progress, and similarly goes up or down with your choices – you can get a game over screen if your Lore number isn’t sufficiently high at the end of a chapter, and I saw a lot of these. Partially this may be because I was playing the RPG minigame wrong – I have to confess I wasn’t sure what rhyme or reason there was to when they went up or down, and since the viewpoint character changes several times, it was pretty unclear whether they represent anything in-game, or are just meant as a sort of out-of-world plot token. There also may be an element of (unexplained) random chance, because sometimes on replays I think the same choices I’d succeeded with earlier failed when tried again. I also found character creation challenging, since it doesn’t feel like you’re given a large pool of points, there’s no advice on whether specialization is better than going for a generalist approach, and feedback on whether e.g. a 5 in Brains is good, bad, or mediocre.
Beyond the RPG system that allows you to try different actions in the world, most pages also have a minigame of sorts embedded in them (though some of the aspects described here were altered in a mid-Comp update -- see the addendum below). There are numbered hyperlinks in many of the passages, some of which advance to the next passage, some of which expand the text on the page. The sidebar will usually have a “hint” listed – these start out easy, for example just as “2”, which indicates that if you click the link labeled 2 first, you’ll probably get a reward of stats gain or Lore increase or see your backstory codex filled in. These quickly get more complex, with wildcards thrown in and not all the options visible from the off.
Here’s an example from the mid-game - the hint here says “1, 2, ?”:
"Bobcat surveyed the slaughterhouse. Time had not been kind to it. The place was old, rundown. Yet surprisingly all the equipment had been well-maintained or replaced with new gear. A row of new galvanized steel pens occupied a portion of the left wall. There were a great many (1.) tools and machines.
"Long metal work tables occupied the back, along with cattle splitting saw, band saws, leg saws, and a giant (4.) Thompson 61000 Industrial Mixer Grinder.
"A handful of Synth crammed inside the pens started bellowing, as though pleading to be spared their grim fate."
This means I’m supposed to click the first link, which expands the text to show a link numbered (2), which I click in turn to reveal link (3). Then I’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing right and unlocking the reward (I clicked 3, and failed).
I found trying to engage with this minigame required me to go out of world, since success seems random rather than linked to the world or text in any concrete way. The interface also doesn’t help – I found the interface sidebar sometimes moved to the side, but sometimes was below the main text, so I had to do a lot of clicking and scrolling. Winning a test often unlocked a new bit of backstory or a mission in the sidebar, which involved more clicking and being out of the story. All told, it’s a lot of cruft that I found messed with the story’s pacing, creating a juddering start-and-stop rhythm.
It would be one thing if it were possible to opt out of this part of the game, but I don’t think that’s possible without activating the God Mode that maxes all your stats – I tried to replay the second chapter five times, but failed due to insufficient lore each time, which seemed disconnected from the actual choices I’d made (perhaps I’d just done too badly In the first chapter, so I was in a dead man walking scenario)? Even after I restarted in God Mode, I still reached a dead end, due to a choice that was probably risky, but which didn’t seem completely unwarranted by any means (Spoiler - click to show)(as Diamondback, using magic to blast Bobcat.
By that time I’d used up the full two hours of the judging period, sadly. Not to be a broken record, but I would like to see more of this story and this world (the Book I subtitle is hopefully a good sign on that front), but retuning the difficulty and de-cluttering some of the gamier elements here would be helpful upgrades.
MUCH LATER ADDENDUM: The game has seen a pretty substantial update since I wrote this review, so I went back to check it out. A bunch of the issues I mentioned in this review have definitely been addressed, but I’d say they’ve been reduced in salience rather than completely ironed out. The hints have definitely gotten better – they’re now cryptic little sentences incorporating words from the passages, and engaging with them is more immersive than the non-diegetic numbered hints in the previous versions. The progress-gating lore checks have been relaxed a bit, though not eliminated – in a non-God-mode playthrough, I was able to get into Chapter 3 before getting stuck when Pink Belly refused to reveal his secret.
Seeing a little more of the game, I was able to discover that some things that seem like choices are actually a bit on rails – which I was actually impressed by, since it does a good job of creating an illusion of choice. I was also able to get close to the end of the story, as the different characters’ paths began to come together, but unfortunately ran into a bug that prevented me from seeing the end (I was told I unlocked “the gem of quickness” and got a bonus applied, but then couldn’t click anywhere). So still a little bit of technical stuff to clean up, but this version is definitely easier to get into, and the writing and worldbuilding remain strong throughout.