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A Shaft of Gold, While All Around is Dark, December 22, 2023
Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review
The second of the review Subseries, “Playing With Matches,” covering IFCOMP23 Texture entries! I went into depth on Texture as an authoring platform here. A quick summary: lots of possibilities in drag and drop UI, deep presentation challenges, keep it on a super short leash.
Lonehouse is a short study about loss, not just of an important person in your life, but of the possibility of ever re-closing an emotional distance. The player is inhabiting a surviving sibling, going through her somewhat estranged sister’s things. Texture is a good choice here, almost tailor-made, as the entire thing is about connecting thoughts with artifacts.
For most of the runtime, I found the implementation uneven. In particular, the connection balloons - text that appeared as you were about to do the drop of drag’n’drop – often asked yearning questions about the thought being connected. (Spoiler - click to show) Connecting THINK to PLUSHIE: “How long have you kept him for, liv?” Sadly, they just as often did not. On the same page as the above, connecting THINK and CHILDHOOD simply read “think childhood.” More than just a missed opportunity, the contrast felt mocking, belittling, and cast a pall on the revealed text. Some pages managed the crime-against-nature font resize well with short, punchy text and page breaks. Others jumped two or three sizes with multiple selects, further adding insult by exposing text ordering problems that broke the flow. For example, text about a door decoration:
“The other had a strikingly red knitted organizer, filled knick-knacks and keys hanging over the knob. You know this thing. You’ve made it yourself.”
If you examine the other door, the injected response (in bold below) mangles the text around it, sapping the integrity of the page:
“The other had a strikingly red knitted organizer, filled knick-knacks and keys hanging over the knob. A plain white door. You can only assume it’s the bedroom. You know this thing. You’ve made it yourself.”
It’s a shame Texture was allowed to run unfettered, because there are some very affecting passages, including a nicely metaphorical stuffed animal that does double duty as subtle possible explanations for the initial distancing while also providing hints of path forward.
There are other technical glitches though: options remain on screen when no further use is possible. In one spot the choices MOVE and INSPECT are available, but INSPECT does nothing and MOVE provides text (para) “no need to move, lets inspect this thing” The tool allows out of order connections, but the narrative does not accommodate them - sometimes you get word salad, other times you advance without seeing key details. Cumulatively, despite flairs of leveraging the Texture platform, I was prepared to write this off as another narrative undone by inexpert use of a super sharp two edged sword. Until I came to the (Spoiler - click to show)Journal page.
I’m going to try this with minimal spoilers, but its gonna be tough. I found (Spoiler - click to show)opening the journal to be about the most powerful use of Texture I have yet seen. Seriously, it might as well be the Platonic Ideal Texture implementation. You are connecting with obscured passages, and each time, the connection bubble changes your understanding slightly, then the new text powerfully replaces one character’s words with another’s thoughts. You experience things through the filter of yearning questions rather than declarative narration. AND THEN CAPPED BY A FINAL HEARTBREAKING CONNECTION BUBBLE. (And not for nothing, the page size is rigidly engineered to avoid font changes, at least until the end.)
This is the reviewer’s lament. I am trying to recall an exceedingly powerful moment to an audience that may have played it while also trying to entice without spoiler an audience that hasn’t even played it yet. I THINK if you play it, you will know it when it hits you. It sure hit me. If you haven’t played maybe just take my word that embedded in this flawed experience is a deeply affecting sequence.
I have to call it Sparky even before that moment, as the work was decidedly if unevenly leveraging Texture’s unique powers. It didn’t completely escape Notably Intrusive thanks to those jerks Text Hunting and Font Dancing. But that one moment was a white hot spark of “THIS. THIS is how they should teach it in Texture School.”
Playtime: 20min, two playthroughs
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Notably Intrusive lack of constraints on Texture
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
- EJ, December 2, 2023
3 people found the following review helpful:
An over-generic take on loss, November 29, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
My wife has a sweatshirt that used to belong to my sister. We live in California, and she lived in Maryland, so one September when we were visiting and it got cold, she noticed that my wife was shivering in her SoCal-appropriate outfit, and lent her a hoody. I forgot to give it back before we left, and a month later we found out Liz’s cancer had come back, so returning a sweatshirt wasn’t ever a priority in the time we had left. And now that sweatshirt isn’t just a sweatshirt.
There can be an unbearable poignancy to the artifacts our loved ones leave behind when they die; the books they read and wrote in, the glasses that let them see, the tchotchkes they’d look at and smile. Trivial, everyday objects that were barely worth a second of thought are transmuted to relics, bearing the last impress of someone’s now-finished time in the world.
Lonehouse engages with that poignancy, in ways that were occasionally quite arresting for me to encounter – the protagonist is visiting the apartment of her recently-deceased sister, named Liv, to help clean it out and take away some keepsakes. As you explore using Texture’s drag-verbs-to-nouns interface, you get snatches of the history between them – it’s not fully explained, but it seems like the sisters hadn’t been in touch, and perhaps there’d been a falling out – and identify the things that seem to have the most Liv-ness to them: a jacket, a favored plushie, a photo.
Despite the strong personal resonance of the premise, though, I didn’t wind up feeling like Lonehouse was truly compelling. Partially this is because the writing is often awkward. The style is generally unadorned and matter-of-fact, which I think is appropriate to communicating grief, but some of the author’s word choices undermine the simple power of this approach. Partially though it’s because the writing never gets especially specific. The general experience of death is one we’ve all had or will have, of course, but it’s unique details that turn this from a vague sense of loss to heart-rending tragedy, and Lonehouse doesn’t usually try to work in this register. Upon seeing that Liv saved an old Christmas gift that the protagonist made her, for example, we’re told that “[a] complicated feeling stirs in you” – but what feeling is that? Again, we aren’t given much detail of the prior relationship between the two, so it’s hard to place this in context.
The Texture engine also makes experiencing the story less engaging than I would have liked. I ran into what appears to be a bug with the system, since I came across it in another game too, where the buttons holding each scene’s verbs displayed their text in a tiny font – that’s not the author’s fault, but it did mean that I was often taken out of the story as I tried to decode my options. The interface also made it challenging to figure out which actions would allow me to explore or get more detail, and which would progress to the next sequence; several times in this short game, I wound up accidentally speeding through rooms I’m not sure I was finished with.
This is a short game that takes on some compelling issues; I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s debut, but if so I think it’s a more than respectable start. My key feedback for next time (and hopefully there’ll be a next time!) is to lean into the concrete, grounded style displayed here, but not to sacrifice the particular in the vain hope of making a piece of writing universal: otherwise, a sweatshirt will remain just a sweatshirt.
1 people found the following review helpful:
A texture game about siblings and loss, November 22, 2023
This is a brief Texture game, one where you drag actions over verbs. It looks like several of the Texture games in this comp were written by authors who supported each other, as they retweet each other on twitter, use similar verbs in their games (like THINK and INSPECT) and one mentioned a writing circle. If it’s true, then that’s cool, because having people to bounce ideas off of can make for much stronger games.
Sorting through your feelings..., November 22, 2023
This is a compelling game about someone receiving a text about a sister who died. You must go to your sister’s apartment and inspect her things, deciding what to do with them.
While they are unrelated, I kind of saw this as a counterpoint to My Brother, the Parasite. That was a dark and unpleasant game about a brother who was very close to the protagonist but also very violent. This is a bittersweet game about a sister who is distant from the protagonist yet left behind a lot of sweet memories. While you can’t see everything on one playthrough, I most enjoyed the moments about the big red jacket, as it was a striking visual and a sweet way to remember someone.
Lonehouse is an emotionally charged piece about facings reality, processing one's grief, and finding ways to remember passed loved ones. The entry feels very personal albeit short. Following the passing of your estranged sister, you find yourself sorting through her belonging, reminiscing about the past, and learning new things about the time spent apart.
The entry takes you through different rooms of your sister's place, each giving the player the same actions (inspect, move, thing). It feels methodical, as if you had to force yourself going through the things your sister left behind. But, in each room, you discover a special item, triggering a memory or thought - each showing a different facet of the person you (thought you) once knew.
Grief can be a heart breaking and complex feeling, rendered even more complicated when the situation is itself a complicated thing (there's a lot of unsaid things in the entry about how it got to this point). I felt like this entry showed maybe a more detached look to that feeling.
- Tabitha / alyshkalia, November 16, 2023
- Edo, November 6, 2023
- Cerfeuil (Happy 2024!), November 2, 2023
- Zape, October 13, 2023
- Jade68, October 11, 2023
- jaclynhyde, October 4, 2023
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