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Innovative sound-based explorathon, November 21, 2021
(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.