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An incomplete Gruescript two-hander, September 22, 2023
Late-Imperial Sky Witches (I guess the short title is more properly “Meet Cute”, but come on, between that and “Late-Imperial Sky Witches” you know which I’m going to pick) is another jam game, but unlike Dream Fears, it doesn’t have a statement as succinct as “this was made in a day” to help orient the player to the ways in which the game does or does not represent the author’s completed vision. This means I’m finding it hard to evaluate on its own terms, because while there’s a lot here that’s intriguing, there’s also a lot here that feels missing, and I’m underconfident that I can sort the intentional obfuscation from the blank canvas.
That’s the job, though, so I guess I’ll try. The game drops you into an interrogation scenario without much by way of introduction: “You’re in the cellblock. A panel of red light separates you from the prisoner.” You’re carrying “your truename” (this turns out to be an identification card) and an empty pyramidal box that belonged to the prisoner. Beginning the investigation is easier than you might think because this is a Gruescript game – that is, it’s a choice-based game that uses buttons for nouns and verbs to mimic a parser interface. So just flailing around with the limited options you’ve got available suffices to move the story forward; you start some light verbal sparring with the prisoner (the interface calls her Rahel, but the parser commands generated by the interface call her irae, “of wrath”), eventually you press her on what was in the box, she gives you a flip answer and you gain a new inventory object: “poetic bullshit” (the game quickly adds a “(literal)” tag at the end there in case you think it’s being metaphorical. And yes, this means you can drop the poetic bullshit).
Which is to stay, the conversation progresses, in ways that are interesting but not especially linear; clearing up the box mystery, to the extent it’s cleared up, leads to one or two other topics that are similarly beguiling, but nothing resembling a narrative or even a moment of relationship catharsis (I thought this was a meet cute?) had cohered by the time another character abruptly barged in and put an end to the interrogation, and the game.
I checked the source code and it doesn’t appear that I missed anything; this is what’s on offer. And I liked it, I have to say – the progression of literalized inventory objects corresponding to ideas or conversation topics was a novel way to make the mechanics clear and the world strange, and the setting implied by the few details I turned up was one I wanted to learn more about. The only trouble is I couldn’t, since it ended just as it was getting started. So again, I’m stymied: is this an intentionally obscure experience, the “meet cute” a romance-genre feint to lure the player into a playable shaggy dog story and impute emotional engagement that’s at best only hinted at? Or is this a placeholder or statement of intent, crystallizing one moment in what was meant to be, or may someday be, a longer piece? Without any extrinsic prompting, it’s hard to decide which scenario is right. Either way, this is a promising vignette with some evocative elements, but in its current version it’s a bit too evanescent to make a lasting impression.