The Kuolema

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Sink and swim, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023, Spring Thing 2024

(This is a review of the Twine version of The Kuolema, as entered in Spring Thing 2024, followed by a review of the Spring Thing 2023 Google Forms version)

A year and three weeks ago, I said:

"even as I was enjoying myself I kept thinking '[the Kuolema] would work just as well, and be smoother, in Twine'."

It works just as well, and is smoother, in Twine!

…okay, the work the author has put into updating the game deserves a little more than that, but unlike my takeaway from One King to Loot Them All, where choosing between the Inform or Twine versions came down to a matter of taste, this is a clear upgrade all around. The Google Forms original pulled out some clever tricks to deal with the fact that that system was never designed for games – including not having any state tracking – but the Twine version is unencumbered by those awkward contrivances: the full game is all in one file, rather than being split between three password-gated ones, inventory and notes are easily available in a sidebar, along with a save-and-load feature, and the presentation has gotten an across-the-board upgrade including some attractive typography and graphic design. Puzzles do still require you to type the name of the object you’re using, the password you’re trying, or what you’re looking for into a text box, but I enjoyed this hold-over: the sidebar allows you to easily refer back to items and info you’ve collected to date, and the type-in requirement means you have to think a bit about what you’re trying to do, rather than just lawnmower through links.

There’ve also been some improvements to the meat of the story. The general shape of the narrative remains the same, but while I didn’t go back to compare things line by line, I remembered seeing some typos and clumsy phrases in the original prose that I didn’t pick up on this time out (I just saw one misspelling: “metalic” for “metallic”). There’ve been a couple of alternate solutions added to puzzles that perhaps felt a bit out-of-context in the initial iteration, and the endgame has seen some expansion – my sense was that the climactic conversation has been substantially fleshed out, and takes advantage of the game’s newfound ability to remember actions you took earlier in the story, while the set of factions you can potentially ally with has been expanded, with accompanying options seeded earlier in the game to set up those possibilities. It’s still recognizably the same pulp sci-fi thriller, but it’s got a bit more heft to it and the central character of Dr. Vrieman has some more psychological plausibility.

The game does include “AI” generated art, alongside hand-made graphics for the puzzle-relevant visuals and documents. As I’ve mentioned before, I am generally down on such things, but kudos to to the author for handling this well: using such tools wasn’t such a hot-button in 2022, when the game began its gestation, and their use is fully disclosed, with a post-victory survey even enabling players to weigh in on how they felt about their presence in the game. I still don’t like seeing them – and I personally don’t think they add much to the game, it would work just as well with the gameplay-relevant graphics being the only ones – but this helped take the sting out.

I suppose the Google Forms version does still retain some novelty value, and future players might enjoy checking it out just to see how far one can torture the system, but the Twine version is very much the definitive edition of what, per my 2023 review, was already a heck of a good time. Nice job, year-ago-Mike, you were spot on!

------Review of Spring Thing 2023 Google Forms version------

Ah, dilemmas! The overwhelming temptation I’m facing here is to open this review by talking about the novelty of the format, since The Kuolema is a choice-based game implemented in Google Forms – but I’m going to resist that temptation, if only because I’m a lapsed Catholic who’s belatedly realized Lent is almost over and I haven’t done anything to mark the occasion. So what would my first paragraph be if it were just another Twine game? Let’s see…

What is it that makes a ghost ship so compelling? The idea of a derelict vessel, devoid of life and presenting an enigma equally intriguing and fatal to investigate, is a freak occurrence here in real life – there’s what, the Mary Celeste? – but beyond literary antecedents like Dracula’s Demeter, it’s become a common motif in gaming, from historical takes like Obra Dinn to yer sci-fi Dead Space-alikes, and has launched a million direct-to-SyFy Bermuda Triangle movies. From a production point of view, this is understandable enough – you get spooky atmosphere, isolated protagonists, and a built-in reason you don’t need too many speaking parts. For an audience, though, the appeal is a bit less obvious. After noodling on it a bit, I think part of the answer is that a ship is both a place and a machine – the empty spaces on an abandoned vessel aren’t just rendered forlorn by the lack of people, they become purposeless and useless, adding poignancy, sure, but also danger (what if part of the machine malfunctions?)

The eponymous ship in The Kuolema fits this model twice over – because it’s not built just for travel, but also to perform novel experiments in clean energy. It was on the verge of some great breakthrough when it suddenly went dark, before popping up again, adrift and on the edge of Chinese territorial waters. As the representative of some unnamed agency, it’s up to you to keep it in international waters, figure out what disaster led to its abandonment, and discover the secrets its crew were keeping from each other.

A story like this could lean a couple different ways, and despite a few technothriller touches, we’re firmly in pulp territory – there’s a mysterious antagonist in a gas mask, the scientific genius has delusions of grandeur, an inevitably spy is working for the Russians, and you’ll probably work out what the deal is with your mysterious contact within five minutes of meeting him. All of which is to say the story beats feel very familiar, but when I stop to think about it I can’t remember anything that deploys exactly the same tropes The Kuolema does, which speaks to how effectively it inhabits its genre.

The prose is of a piece with this unpretentious approach. Here are some excerpts of descriptions from a few early locations:

"The top deck (Deck 4) is open to the elements and the rain-slick deck reflects the glinting lights as they shine and flicker through the downpour. The wind is howling and the white crests of the sea are visible out in the darkness.

"The stairs are awash with water and the ship continues to sway and lurch. You concentrate on keeping your footing as you cautiously step down into the darkness. There are a few dim lights still on below deck, just enough for you to make out your surroundings.

"It’s pitch black, with the only light coming from the corridor behind you. You move towards one of the windows to see the foaming waves outside. Suddenly the room is lit by a flash of lightning - giving you a brief imprint of the space you’re in. There are several tables and faux-leather seats spread around the room, along with a canteen serving area and a separate bar. Glasses and bottles litter the area – some rolling across the floor casting long, dark shadows – making it seem like creatures scuttling away from the flashes of light."

This effectively conveys a vibe, and that vibe, clearly, is “dark”. Sure, it’d be stronger with some more synonyms (and fewer comma splices), but given the kind of game this is it’d be easy to tip into ridiculousness by banging on about the tenebrous murk of the gloaming, so there’s nothing wrong with taking the safer path. Also, the writing isn’t stuck doing the heavy lifting all on its lonesome, since the game’s well illustrated with various 3d renders, documents, and diagrams that all fit the menacing mood. And once the game moves into its final acts, the one-note chiaroscuro gets replaced with some surprisingly-punchy action sequences.

The gameplay also doesn’t make waves. The Kuolema is one of those parser-aping choice game, with map-based navigation and puzzles that primarily involve getting through locked doors, figuring out computer passwords or safe combinations, and collecting three parts of an important device. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before – heck, you even need to solve a crossword to get one key clue! – but it’s workmanlike, with the various bits of gating making exploration feel rewarding, and the barriers putting up enough of a fight to seem satisfying without being too tough (with the possible exception of that crossword, which does rely on knowing some nautical slang).

And now, finally, we have to get to the Google Form-ness of it all, because the process of moving around and solving these puzzles is heavily influenced by the game’s format. Google Forms, for those of y’all not familiar, is Alphabet’s answer to Survey Monkey*, allowing for radio-button style selection of choices as well as text input. Interface-wise, then, it seems like it would offer the best of both the choice-based and parser worlds – but the wrinkle is that it doesn’t track world state. That means that the game doesn’t know what you have in your inventory, or what you’ve already talked to an NPC about.

The author’s done a clever job of getting around this limitation, it must be said. For one thing, the game’s broken into three different files, making it easy to jump in and out (a necessity, since the lack of persistence means there’s no save function) and also allowing for the progression of the plot to alter the environment after each major chokepoint is reached. Inventory puzzles are also handled by typing in the name of the object rather than the honor-system approach taken by old gamebooks (“if you have the crowbar, turn to page 58, but please don’t cheat”), and each usually has some nickname or codeword associated with it, so random guessing won’t get you anywhere. There’s still some wonkiness (I saw options about the computer password needed in the security room before I first visited said room and learned there was a computer) but between careful design and careful writing, the game works much better on this score than I expected it to. There are even a few places where the player’s choices can lead to different outcomes, though these all appear to be in the final section, of necessity.

Still, for all that it’s hard for me to imagine a better implementation of IF in Google Forms, I’m not sure The Kuolema justifies its choice of systems. This is a well-done but straightforward piece of IF that doesn’t seem to take advantage of any unique affordances of Google Forms (it could have been fun to see what choices other players made at different parts of the story, for example); as a result, even as I was enjoying myself I kept thinking “this would work just as well, and be smoother, in Twine”. I’m guessing the advantage is that Google Forms doesn’t require any programming chops, but of course that’s immaterial to the player – and considering how complex this thing must have been to orchestrate, learning a standard IF language might have been less work!

Turn that around, though: towards the beginning of this review I talked about how one thing that I like about ghost ship stories is that they present idle machines, inviting the question of how they broke down. If The Kuolema, in a postmodern twist, is itself a mechanism whose workings are clunkier and more exposed than they could be, perhaps that’s just function following form? At any rate, this is a wreck that’s worth investigating, and I hope to see more IF from this author (though I wouldn’t be sad if their next game used a more conventional system).

* I was going to include a crack here about how big tech companies can be threatened by anything, but then I looked up some financial data and learned that Survey Monkey has a $1.5 billion market cap, which I guess is what it is but sure feels like it’ll sit next to in some future textbook about the ridiculousness of the various turn-of-the-millennium tech bubbles.

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