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About the Story
It's the end of the world and everyone's handling it in their own way.
CHASE THE SUN is a game about running, family, and death. It features topics that may be considered surreal, unsettling, or upsetting to some.
21st Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 7
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
I was reading Andrew Schultz’s thread on games set in all 50 states the other day, and feeling surprised everybody was blanking on contenders in the great state of Pennsylvania – it’s big, with a couple major cities, a good amount of history, what’s not to like? Well, I must have been tuning into something, since after The Counsel of the Caves, we’ve now hit our second Pennsylvania-set game of the Comp. The protagonist of Chasing the Sun isn’t a native, admittedly: she’s from Vermont but fleeing a bad marriage and a mysterious slow-motion apocalypse (wait – is that you, Nitocris?!) With the sun stopped low in the sky and an unnatural, deadly storm creeping west across the Atlantic, she starts to run out of gas as she hits a forested part of the state, which is where the game opens.
So far what I’ve described would fit a horror game – at first the premise reminded me strongly of 2020’s Alone, for example – but the mood in Chasing the Sun is far more contemplative, and the language is lush and literary. Here’s one of the opening paragraphs:
"The sunless Pennsylvania Wilds zips past your car windows — trees upon trees upon trees. Green as envy and swollen with humidity. You are surrounded and far, far away from home. The road ahead is quiet. The air is breathable. The cabin of your truck is dry and covered in trash and bridal lace. You’re alone and you’re not dead yet."
The sentence lengths could use more variation – ditto with the choice of verbs – but still, this is a well-written bit of prose, setting a high bar for quality that’s sustained through the twenty minute runtime, albeit with the occasional hiccup (there’s a mention of the onrushing storm “dragging its clouds towards the id-soaked sunset”).
Similarly, the gameplay doesn’t have you making tense, high-stakes decisions as you squabble for supplies with other desperate survivors. For the most part, the drag-and-drop Texture interface gives you two options in each passage, one which allows you to move some kind of examining or exploration action onto a couple of different nouns to go deeper, and one that moves the game linearly forward. Later on, you fetch up at a farmhouse where gas and other necessities are freely available, and you get into an intense conversation with a woman you seem to share some kind of spark with, which does involve more discrete choices, but these are heavily telegraphed, giving the player free reign to define how they want the tete-a-tete to play out.
There is one odd exception, though, which is that if you spend too much time in the opening futzing around twirling the dial on your radio in search of active stations, you’ll get in a game-ending car crash. I think this is an ill-advised design decision, since it punishes exploration in a way that’s ultimately to the game’s detriment (though I have to say, I find the Texture interface finicky since I use a touchpad – the drag-and-drop feels inaccurate and sometimes releasing the click doesn’t seem to register – I of course don’t hold that against the game, but maybe contributed to my disinclination to mess about after that death).
It’s after you reach the farmhouse that Chasing the Sun shows its hand: the conversation with Bird, the woman you find there, is the center of the piece, as you quickly jump past the wary formalities of meeting someone new and leap into unburdening each other of your respective secrets. This works… okay. I can see what the author is going for – Bird has a specific orientation towards the apocalypse that you can choose to agree or disagree with, and which gets at some heavy (though hardly novel or underexplored) themes – and the dialogue feels largely naturalistic.
Still, it feels very rushed, and while the story tries to paper over the way these two strangers immediately reveal their deepest selves to each other by invoking some kind of ineffable, sudden bond (the protagonist, a woman, seems like she might be gay and either closeted or prevented from living her true sexuality by a repressive family), it still takes an act of will to suspend one’s disbelief. Similarly, the details of the storm’s movement and the end of the earth’s rotation don’t hold together if you start questioning them. Taking it on its own terms, though, I found Chasing the Sun rather lovely, and would love to see the author tackle a somewhat longer piece that gives its characters and themes a little more room to breathe.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
I really dig the Texture “drag and drop” interface, that is what I’ve learned. It feels like you are connecting ideas more organically than a cold click-one-or-other selection (looking at you, Twine). It also seems to open more authorial possibilities by contrasting the connecting ideas, or conveying information about what ideas should be connected (or can’t!) for story purposes.
This story is well-served by the user paradigm. Its an intriguingly imprecise apocalypse tale, focusing on one woman’s reactions in face of impending doom. As she makes her way through a nicely-specific Western Pennsylvania, the interactivity gives us personal and global background and character beats whose ordering and selection (or not) allow the player to collaborate in fleshing out. The whole thing is packed with specific details that really bring the setting and characters to life. It is a short game, but allows multiple endings directly impacted by player choices, and those choices have everything to do with how the player wants to define the character. This is Sparky.
The only unfortunate note, and for me it was an impactful one, was that one ending was arbitrary and unsatisfying and it was the first one I got. It lowered expectations so much for me, that subsequent playthroughs carried a shadow over them. That particular ending was ALSO noteworthy in that the background setting work it did (and was unavailable on other paths) was captivating. I could envision a version where the lead up perhaps leaned thematically more into the ending provided, but I didn’t detect that.
That is unfortunate, because the endings I achieved after that were so much more satisfying and complete. A key attraction to Apocalypse stories is the “what would I do?” question. Here, by providing just the right amount of specifics and back story, the better endings were exploring variations of “what do I want the protagonist to do”? That there were multiple choices leading to different conclusions, and that they still felt consistent with both player choices and the overarching narrative felt really cool. It feels ungenerous to drag down the score due to one possible path. Is a work as good as its best moment? Or as bad as its worst? Or some work-specific function of them all? I dunno man, I’m just winging it.
Playtime: 20min, multiple runs, 3 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
I reference this work in another review. Fair's fair, crosslink to US Route 160.
A woman is driving away from her wedding and the end of the world. I played through twice and got two very different endings. They were so different, in fact, that I am not sure what the author was trying to get me to think about with this game.
The main thing that stood out to me was the Texture game engine, which I had never seen before. It requires the player to click and drag a command to highlighted text, executing the command when the player releases the text. When the command is hovering over the highlighted text, it shows another small text box that explains what will happen (for example, asking about a certain topic will give you a small text of what the player character will actually say). I played on my tablet, and sometimes it was difficult to see that little extra text box, but it still worked pretty well. At first, I didn't realize that "examine" would bring me back to the game without passing time, and I missed examining the objects in my car in my first playthrough. I liked the Texture format. It gave the game more of an adventure game feel.
Back to the game's narrative. You're driving a car and will run out of gas unless you find more. (Spoiler - click to show)I made friends with a cute redhead and ran from the end of the world a little longer with her. I also did a playthrough where I stayed in my car and let the end of the world come to me! I didn't get very emotionally involved in the game, but it was very short.
|U.S. Route 160, by Sangita V Nuli|
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