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About the Story
Cybernetically enhanced Elizabeth Boldan tries to find herself while working part-time at the Crown Diamond, an erotic massage parlor and brothel in the year 2029. On television and in the movies, cybernetics promise enhanced intelligence, strength, or speed. For Elizabeth, it's a cursed hyper-awareness of how everybody feels. Navigate an interaction with one of her regulars, get to know her coworkers, and meet a mysterious stranger. A prelude to future mysteries.
Nominee - Elizabeth Boldan, Best Individual PC; Nominee, Best Use of Innovation; Nominee, Best Use of Multimedia - 2020 XYZZY Awards
10th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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I am a big fan of cyberpunk, and I feel like "Sense of Harmony" is an excellent example of the genre (or is it post-cyberpunk? I don't know). The writing was great, especially the characterization, and the choice structure serves the story well.
In terms of structure, this is a twine story with two types of links: "digression" and "advancement". Each in-text "digression" link is an invocation of the protagonist's cybernetic abilities: hyper-senses, memory lookup, and so on. These links are color-coded by ability. Sometimes these links will reveal new "advancement" links at the bottom of the page, as if the protagonist is changing her actions based on new information. I felt like this was a really cool mechanic; it's a way of showing how the protagonist's enhanced mind works. The interface was also visually really attractive, with nice icons and layouts.
One of my favorite things about the story is how down-to-earth and humane it is. It never sensationalizes sex work or cybernetic enhancements. Insofar that the cybernetic enhancements are bad, they are bad for the same reasons that cell phones are bad (fortunately there's no suggestion that implants are dehumanizing or anything like that, unlike so many other cyberpunk products). Similarly, sex work is treated here like any other job; the protagonist's main problem with it is that she can get emotionally attached to the clients (who are mostly ordinary people with ordinary problems). The protagonist is just someone who's trying to get by; there's not much about her that is actually "punk".
The only reason I'm taking a star off is because the story is unfinished. It stops at what seems like the Act 1 climax. The protagonist makes some potentially major choices in the story, but the consequences are never shown. Nevertheless, "Sense of Harmony" is very worth reading.
This is a primarily a straightforward choice-based piece, but there are lots of visual bells and whistles to accompany the text. Pop-up panels (not pop-up windows, don't worry) to add details, changing choices depending on which details you decide to examine, and other visual/text effects. And I've never seen them put to better use. Usually visual effects in text games don't add a lot to the story, they are mostly distractions or an author/programmer showing off. But in this story they are on point.
You play a cybernetically enhanced woman, making her living in a high-tech brothel. But your enhancements are not for use in your sex work, as you might expect in a story like this, but rather the result of experiments on you as a child, and you prefer to keep them hidden from the world. One of the benefits to this tech is a hyper-awareness of the world around you, implemented by flashing or stylized words in the text that you can click on to examine that aspect of the story in superb detail. At times these additional observations will alter the choices available to you, with new choices delivered in a corresponding color and typed out quickly, one letter at a time, the perfect choice to strengthen the mood. To me, it felt like some of the opening scenes of Terminator 2, with your electronic components giving you micro-reports on the environment and people around you, directly to your HUD/consciousness. It really helped me embody the character.
I'm looking forward to playing through it again when I have time, hopefully when the next installment comes out, as this is meant to be the first in a series of stories.
My only compliant would be that the pivotal scene, at least in my playthrough, when you are (Spoiler - click to show)fighting with the mysterious woman in your massage room, drags a little bit for what should be a fast-paced and tense scene, and that some parts of it are vague/confusing as to what Elizabeth is perceiving to be happening (I'm sure more will be explained in future installments though). A very minor downside to an otherwise entertaining experience.
This game is part of IFComp 2020, so if you are reading this in October or November of 2020 head over to ifcomp.org and sign up to be a judge. You can play this and other wonderful games and vote on which authors should win cash prizes!
Oh, more of this, please. Sense of Harmony is clearly stated to be a ďprelude to further mysteriesĒ, and its one-hour gameplay time is also marked on the tin, so I have no one to blame but myself for the disappointed groan I emitted when I hit the ďdemoís done, stay tuned for more!Ē message just when things were getting exciting. I hope the authors donít spend too long basking in deserved praise and get back to the salt mines right quick, because I want to play the rest, damn it!
Backing up slightly: Sense of Harmony is a cyberpunk adventure that takes advantage of playersí likely familiarity with the genre while layering a smart twist on top: while the player character has a full suite of cybernetic enhancements, enabling her to jack into electronics, have full recall of her memories, and, most notably, be the mistress of any social situation through a complement of enhanced senses that allow her to read subtle cues in intonation, body language, and even sweat-sheen differentials, these are not common technologies, and as far as she knows sheís the only one of her kind.
Because these abilities are presented as unique, and not just a quotidian part of the setting, the game really foregrounds them, through a clever melding of writing and interface. In most every passage, you have several color-coded links allowing you to access your enhanced sight, or hearing, or touch, many of which open up additional actions or choices. This is really effectively done, making you feel like an omniscient Sherlock Holmes while ensuring that the player still needs to synthesize the tidal wave of information and make decisions based on it, rather than it being a matter of picking one right option after using the correct magic power. As an early example, thereís a sequence where the player character can tell that one of her clients is upset about something, and after asking some probing questions, can get a clear sense of their emotional disposition, whether they might be hiding something, and the presence of some underlying tensions related to some of the topics they bring up. But the player still needs to make a (hard!) choice about what to do with all of that knowledge.
It really is an amazing power fantasy, and the writing helps sell it, too. This description of remote-hacking a lock is one of the best of its ilk Iíve ever read:
"Whatever it is that makes you not a paperclip. Not a stone just eroding away in the waters of life.
Whatever that is, itís left you. Distantly, you feel it coiling itself around the fingerprint scanner and squeezing itself into its circuit boards. The deeper it goes, the further it feels, and the emptier your chest, the dimmer your light.
This tells me what it feels like to have these abilities, in a way that really drew me into the world.
The cavalcade of information also helps put the player in the same mindset as the character. Every interaction becomes slowed-down, hyperreal Ė even noticing a coworker with an interesting tattoo can spiral into multiple avenues of investigation, but itís not clear whether thatís because thereís anything significant going on, or because the player characterís abilities make everything feel significant (I mean, itís a game, Iím guessing the former, but still, the slightly-paranoid, slightly-overwhelming vibe really works).
I havenít said much about the plot yet Ė largely because there isnít that much to it at present beyond a slice-of-life vignette and a mysterious encounter that doesnít yet resolve. This is all well done, especially the first bit Ė the player character moonlights doing sex work, which, as far as I can tell, is portrayed in a sensitive, non-prurient way that underscores the emotional labor required. The few characters are well-drawn, with the player characterís extraordinary senses providing a great channel for adding shading and depth to people like the brothelís new boss, who initially comes across as an awkward meathead but also has an appealing kindness to him.
Again, everything here just works, and Iím eager to see where things go from here. Iím unsure exactly what that will look like Ė and Iím a bit worried about the amount of work required, since to do the senses justice requires so much detail that Iím guessing this could easily be a ten or twenty hour game! So please, donít kill yourselves but definitely get cracking.
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