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About the Story
The year is 2049. Your mission is to take down a military cult that has formed around Joan of Arc.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: October 1, 2021
Current Version: Unknown
Development System: Twine
Forgiveness Rating: Merciful
Nominee, Best Use of Multimedia - 2021 XYZZY Awards
37th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Intfiction.org Thread (Josh Grams)
Worth checking out if you like audio games with your IF
I’ve played about an hour of Cygnet Committee. This is a spy/action-movie kind of plot. You’re sneaking into a military/research complex to supposedly shut down an AI (we’ll see if that’s how it actually turns out).
Whenever you go to do something, there are four audio “tracks” on the screen; you have to click on the one that’s different to progress.
My biggest beef is that you usually have to choose the right track 3-7 times to advance and there’s NO PROGRESS MARKER. Oh, I should mention that I’ve already run into not one but two fairly tight timed sequences.
But otherwise this is a satisfyingly fun and weird sci-fi secret-agent game so far.
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An Exercise for the Reader
Joan of Arc is a fascinating figure. She’s been many things: heretic, martyr, saint, hero, military leader, feminist icon, nationalist symbol. Cygnet Committee invites us to explore many of these different aspects of Joan, especially the ways in which she’s been appropriated—even exploited—by others.
At different times during Cygnet Committee Joan comes across as an enigma, a victim, a threat, a marketable brand name, and as insane. Who was she, really? Who is she? Cygnet Committee never answers that question, instead preferring to portray Joan in all of her complexity.
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Number of Reviews: 4
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I beta tested this game.
This is a pretty long choice-based game with an expansive map. Each room has about 1 puzzle on average. The majority of the puzzles are the same: The screen is divided into 4 invisible stripes. Moving your mouse up and down will cue an animation filling that stripe (generally a sound wave) and play a sound. One sound will be different from the others; you must click that one.
There are other puzzles from time to time.
In addition, there are save terminals and other points that play scenes from the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc while a synthetic voice reads text in a heavy french accent.
The idea is that an AI company cloned/re-made Joan of Arc to use for commercial benefit, but things went wrong. You learn more as the game progresses, of course.
There are enemies, and defeating them drops 'bits' that you can use to buy shortcuts.
It's really clever and polished, and very descriptive. But the interactivity is a bit tedious, especially when re-crossing an area over and over again. For that reason, I've never fully replayed it after testing, but played the first few rooms again before writing this review.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
My initial foray playing Cygnet Committee was unsuccessful. A slickly-produced Twine game that from the credits and blurb seems to be mining Metal-Gear-Solid-adjacent territory, albeit with what might be a distinctive cult angle, Cygnet Committee requires sound to play -- and while I’m weirdly resistant to listening to any audio when playing IF in general, at the time of first playing I was in brand-new-parent mode where if I couldn't hear the baby’s breathing for a couple of minutes, I got anxious. I tried to see if I could bluff my way through the game with it muted, but the “sound required” tag does not lie.
Happily, I came back much later and played Cygnet Committee through, with the sound on this time, I can confirm my initial impression that this was going to be a high-production-value game with a lot of work behind it. It’s also got a novel puzzle mechanic that’s played out in a bunch of creative ways, a pomo plot that interrogates the uses and misuses of the historical memory of Joan of Arc, and a sprawling, metroidvania-y map. I’m still not sold on the use of sound in IF – and I wished there was a stronger connection between the puzzles and the plot – but Cygnet Committee is a confident, poised piece of work that makes a strong case for it.
Starting with that puzzle mechanic, it manages to be both brand new, but also really intuitive. As your operative infiltrates an island-based military installation, you’ll come across navigation challenges, patrolling robots, locked keypads, and spying drones. Each presents you with four different audio samples, and you need to pick out the right one to progress. Usually this just means choosing the one that’s different from the other three, though what this means diegetically shifts with context – the lock tumbler that clicks twice, the bit of the minefield that’s not beeping, and so on.
There are a few curve-balls that get thrown in, including some timed sequences, and a few more traditional find-the-keycode puzzles, but most of the hour and a half I took on the game was spent in these sequences, and I found the variation wasn’t enough to keep them from getting a little stale by the end. There’s a lot of going back and forth through the sprawling map – again, it’s got a kind of metroidvania structure, where you’ll get a new keycard or send power to a previously-visited area – and unless you use a slowly-accumulating currency to unlock shortcuts, you generally need to solve the puzzles all over again even when going back over already-trodden ground.
There are also some design choices in the back half of the game that exacerbated the drag, since you’ll repeatedly come across a device – a dam outflow wheel, a first-aid kit – a few locations before you reach the place it impacts, meaning that even though I figured out these puzzles pretty much immediately, there was still five minutes of tedious back-and-forth to implement the solution. This kind of thing is par for course in a metroidvania, of course, but much of this felt more like it was about padding the game length than offering cool new secrets to unlock.
My real hesitance with the puzzles, though, is that the gameplay didn’t feel all that deeply integrated with the interesting plot. There’s a complex backstory, involving the creation and deployment of a military AI based on Joan of Arc that’s gone mad and is now threatening the globe with nuclear war, which is related through stylish cutscenes that juxtapose text read aloud by a French text-to-speech program (like, it speaks the English words as if they were French, which is a neatly alienating effect) with clips from The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie beloved by cineastes (I’ve never seen it but can confirm the images are very compelling).
Befitting the Metal Gear Solid inspiration cited in the credits, this narrative has some bonkers ups and downs, involving cyborgs, the intersection of warmongering and commerce, and an extended shaggy dog story about canned beans (there’s a note of humor here, though it’s played bone-dry). Careful attention also suggests that there’s more going on than meets the eye – in particular, the ending I got pretty strongly implied that (Spoiler - click to show)that the nuclear apocalypse threat isn’t real, the protagonist is just an aspect of the AI’s personality, and the game’s action is a pageant of persecution and immolation Joan has constructed for herself to satisfy the imperatives of history.
This is cool stuff, but again, it’s mostly fed to the player in cutscenes. There’s some thematic resonance between the audio-based puzzles and the fact that Joan of Arc was said to hear voices – plus the construction of the AI featured some gross stuff involving auditory nerves – but the separation between the gameplay layer and the narrative one feels pretty wide. With a deserted base and no other characters to speak to, and no clarity on how the various features of the island – there’s a chapel, a forest, a lighthouse – relate to the AI’s plans, I sometimes felt like I was solving abstract puzzles to unlock plot coupons. I did enjoy both sides of the equation, but stronger integration of these pieces would have made the experience more compelling.
Highlight: there are some cool secrets to find along the critical path – I turned up two, and am pretty sure I missed a bunch more – getting these was really rewarding.
Lowlight: winning the game gives you the option of unlocking a new “hard mode”, but to access it you need to have accumulated 500 of the game’s chip currency, and I only had like 100 left over at the end. Better secret-finding would have helped, but I think you’d also need to pass up the various options to spend chips to make navigation easier, so I doubt even the most thorough player would finish with the requisite chips, and requiring two full playthroughs to open up the option to play a third time feels like inaccessible design (though the author clarified there's no additional plot in hard mode).
How I failed the author: as I mentioned in the stub I wrote before I played, my current setup is not conducive to playing games with sound – I was constantly pulling off my headphones to listen for Henry’s noises, or talk to my wife, and these regular interruptions probably undermined my immersion in the game.
In Cygnet Committee, the player navigates an abandoned military compound and learns the story of an AI based on Joan of Arc. The opening scene, swimming to a beach and then avoiding mines on your way to the compound, seems like pretty standard spy stuff. Then I reached the compound and found the beanstalks growing ears, and I realized this game was going to be much weirder than I first thought.
In general, the world of the game is strange, and some things are definitely meant to be humorous, but it’s not a farce. It strikes a tricky balance between the objective strangeness—ridiculousness, even—of the situation and the sense that this is all deadly serious within the universe of the game, managing to be thought-provoking and elicit some empathy for the Joan AI even though a bare-bones summary of the plot would seem like a joke.
The gameplay is innovative: you have four audio tracks, visually represented on the screen, that play when you mouse over them, and you have to select the one that plays the correct sound (listening for a “click” when you’re picking a lock, for example)—or sometimes no sound at all (as when you’re navigating a minefield and need to avoid the tracks where your detector is beeping to indicate the presence of a mine). Sound-centric gameplay like this is rare even in video games, and in IF, to the best of my knowledge, it’s never been done before. It’s certainly unique and memorable.
The problem is that, for me, it wasn’t actually fun. With a few exceptions (about which more later), every single puzzle is the same “listen to these four tracks and select the one that’s different” task, which offers little opportunity for increasing difficulty or complexity over the course of the game. I got some enjoyment out of figuring out the gimmick on the very first puzzle, but after that it got repetitive very quickly, especially as the player has to redo previous tasks every time they want to revisit an area.
It’s not that I require complicated puzzles in order to enjoy something. I frequently enjoy works of IF and video games that have no gameplay to speak of. I’m happy to play a walking simulator or click links to advance a linear Twine story, as long as it feels like interactivity is serving some purpose in the game. But when a game has gameplay elements that are nominally challenges, but are so easy that completing them gives no real sense of satisfaction, it ends up feeling like busywork to me.
The timed segments are, I think, a bit more challenging; I was extremely bad at them, because I have poor reflexes/fine motor skills, so I feel a little weird saying that I think the game would have been better if there were more of them, but I do think that a game focused more around the timed segments would have felt more rewarding. (Although these segments would have benefited greatly from having a timer on-screen, I think.)
I can see how much work this must have been on the technical end of things, and it seems very polished, without bugs or places where the essentially-custom system gets noticeably wonky. But in the end, while I appreciate it as a technical feat and admire the delicate tonal balance that the writing achieves, I didn’t really enjoy the game.
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