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A large, graphical commercial game about American storytelling, September 14, 2020
It's more or less impossible for me to review this game objectively, because (although almost certainly unknown to the authors) this game is tied up in the story of my life.
Enormous backstory behind spoilers for space:(Spoiler - click to show)
In 2015 I was desperately in search for validation in life. I had graduated with my math PhD with the hopes of being one of the best and brightest young researchers out there. However, I found my papers rejected again and again, and realized that I was in over my head.
Feeling like a failure and stung by the reviewer's comments that my exposition and overall writing were poor, and recently interested in playing interactive fiction, I decided to throw myself into writing interactive fiction and become a great writer.
When I began, I had a chip on my shoulder and viewed well-known and commercial authors as distant, vague entities, to be envied and imitated. My first game was well-received in general, but was noted, again, by reviewers as being somewhat lacking in the writing department. I vowed to do better.
Around that time, I joined the euphoria IF community, a discord-like website (that is now, I believe, defunct), where many of the great authors and up-and-coming ones congregated. I wanted to fit in, and here were the people I wanted to be like.
A lot of good came from that. I made my first transgender friends, which cleared up a lot of misconceptions I had from my youth and almost complete lack of experience with anything outside of the gender norm. I found out that a lot of famous people, like Emily Short, were just normal, kind individuals who happened to be very talented at writing.
But a lot of the community had different standards and ideals than I did, and I began changing in subtle ways to fit in, and eventually I realized I didn't like it and cut it out. At the same time, a lot of those same people joined the writing team of this game. As one of those not invited, it deepened my envy and pride. I thought negatively about the game, and felt a kind of smug assurance when I heard it had done poorly.
Since then, I've re-evaluated a lot of things in life; got divorced, changed careers, went back to my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I've found self-value in my church and in my high school teaching, interacting with students. I got a book deal and published a novel, and realized that it wasn't what I wanted to do. And that commercial writing isn't what I want to do. I find joy in writing the games I like, helping others write them.
But some old habits are hard to change, and probably will be forever. When I heard this game was free, I felt my old demons stirring up inside of me. I downloaded it and wrote pages of notes on why I disliked it or it was bad.
I finally realized, though, that my own personal hangups weren't a basis for a good review. And pushing through to the end revealed many good facets.
So what is this game about? Like Sunless Seas/Skies and 80 Days, its closest competitors, it's a narrative game with little storylets spread around a world map, coupled with some stat management in the background.
[Note: I had a lot of trouble finding info online about this game and was frustrated many times, so I'm going into tons of detail here. Spoilered for space]
(Spoiler - click to show)
You walk across America, and have 3 main activities:
-Collecting stories, which can occasionally deplete one of 3 stats. Later on, collecting turns into 'upgrading' where a story is retold to you by a stranger and becomes higher quality
-Replenishing those stats by finding work or buying food
-'Feeding' stories to one of 16 different wanderers on the map.
The feeding part is the bulk of the mid and late game. The strangers have detailed art, and they ask you for stories in one of 5 categories: sad, funny, inspiring, scary, and exciting. The stories don't come labeled, and it can vary from playthrough to playthrough, so you can either guess and check what the type is or try to remember from the first time.
Each character has 3-4 chapters, with 3 being the most common. In each chapter, you have 5 opportunities to find stories that fit their requests. As the nights progress, higher quality stories are needed. When you complete a chapter successfully, the character moves across the map and you gain their story or upgrade it. If you are unsuccessful, they still move but your progress is saved.
The character's stories, as I found out through experimentation, count as wildcards, level 3 stories that can satisfy any request. It can be amusing at time to tell the story of a character haunted by the phantoms of war and have the listener laugh and say how good a joke it was. I beat about 10/16 characters' hardest levels by saving up these wildcards for the final chapter.
My overall impression of elements of the game:
(Spoiler - click to show)
The 2d art and sound in this game are wonderful, with a very Americana atmosphere and some startling changes in the characters.
The 3d art is obviously the result of a lot of good effort, but it felt fairly repetitive after traversing the land over and over.
The writing is very good on a small, prose level, but weak on overall structure. The stories you collect are short little nuggets, and leveling up doesn't give you a new story to read, it just says essentially the title of the new version.
Everything in the game is allusions, allusions, allusions. You're supposed to know tarot cards and their meaning and names, as the font is too small to read if you don't know them. Most of the conversations with the characters goes like this:
-The player: Tell me about love.
-The character: Love? I've loved before. It's a strange thing, love. One day you can love, and what day you can be out of love. Me, I've been both.
There's a reason for that. One is that the writing is necessarily modular in nature. The authors didn't know what order the responses would be given in in-chapter or even if they'd be given at all, so none of them contains any essential information and they don't form a cohesive in-chapter narrative.
The other reason is that it seems to just be the direction they were given. The weakest part in the game is its overall direction/combining the various elements. I frequently thought as I played that I'd love to have all the elements separately: the stories in a book, the music on a CD, the art on a webpage. It's very disconcerting to see a beautiful transformation in the artwork at the same time that the story ends with one of several variations of 'Well, goodbye, I won't see you again.'
The game's controls and the style of play are very cryptic at the beginning. It helps to hit h and look at tips or escape to find controls. If you can push past the first part, it will start making sense.
Overall, my experience only improved as I played. As for my personal story above, (spoilers for uninterested):
(Spoiler - click to show)I came to realize as I played that I didn't need to hold onto the old envy, although I don't know if I'll ever be able to get rid of that feeling for good. I wouldn't have enjoyed writing for this game and I wasn't suited for it. I like on-the-nose fantasy and sci-fi, and I'm unskilled at literary-style text because I haven't valued it or practiced it. The game's direction leans against my values, with casual nudity included in art, strong profanity, and frequent diatribes against God, including by preachers. Getting my wish would have been a disaster for both me and the game, leaving everyone dissatisfied.
I received a free copy of this game, but only because it was on sale.