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About the Story
Discover Oban, the spider-web city.
57th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
Number of Reviews: 5
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Hanging by threads kicks off with an exciting and clever intro. You and a group of people are traveling to the city of Oban when the tour guide decides to throw a wrench into the game plan: Only one person gets to enter. The decision is made by drawing sticks. This builds the suspense of winning an exclusive and coveted access to the innards of a mysterious realm. Atmosphere has a faint, faint similarity with Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, minus the candy and the kids. Instead, it is a city suspended over a chasm held together by spider webs.
Once you win the sticks drawing (which is a no-brainer) you make an important choice. Do you take a lantern, knife, or binoculars into the city? Each item opens unique content in the gameplay. This also encourages replays to try each item. If you want my take on it, (Spoiler - click to show) the lantern’s content was the most innovative while the knife’s content provides more exposition on the story. Binocular’s content was interesting too but with less pizazz.
After the intro you can explore the business level or the lower level to see some of the locals. Here, the gameplay is descriptive. Life is a tangle of catwalks and ladders. All you have to do is explore.
The overarching story is intriguing. Turns out that Oban is (Spoiler - click to show) slowly falling apart. There is some secrecy about this. You hear quiet conversations in the game room and bar where people discuss an unnamed decision they need to make. An evacuation, maybe? I cannot say for sure.
There is a major weak point that drags everything down. Sudden and abrupt endings. You are puttering around doing this or that when the game ends with (Spoiler - click to show) (see below):
My surroundings seem strange, as if everything is moving and I can't stand, so I sit where I am. There's no doubt now. I don't have time to watch what the others are doing, and being honest I don't care, they should be ready for it, and I shouldn't be living this situation.
??? What does it mean by “others” and what did the player do to cause this ending?
The game is fickle. In one playthrough you may step foot somewhere and be fine. In another, you get this message. Experimenting is tricky because you never know when the game will cut you off. Perhaps there is a pattern that I am missing. But after playing and replaying the game, I still ran into the same issue.
Because of this, I have not reached a winning end. Or any end at all besides the one mentioned here.
I felt like I did not see enough to really experience the other characters. You do get a sense of people’s livelihoods which was interesting. Instead of (Spoiler - click to show) fishing for fish in a body of water people “fish” for birds inside the chasm beneath the city. Surprisingly, we also learn that (Spoiler - click to show) some people are not too concerned about the city falling apart. They just see it as the natural way of things. But when I had the chance to talk one-on-one with another character the game would come in with the abrupt ending.
The protagonist's background is also unexplored. The gameplay is in first person. We know that the PC is male and uses a cane to walk even though he is relatively young. But that does not stop him from braving the floating walkways. He seems ambitious and I would have liked to know more.
The game uses a beige background with black text and a black line at the bottom of the screen. It is a simple design, but the game sometimes surprises the player with extra effects.
The most prominent effect occurs when (Spoiler - click to show) visiting the bar by the catwalk with the lantern. The screen and text are black to hide the words from view, but the player’s mouse is surrounded by a halo of “light” represented by rings that conjure up the appearance of a flashlight illuminating a wall quite convincingly. When you scroll over the words they appear. It closely follows the effect found in another Twine game called my father’s long, long legs where (brief spoiler for that game) (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist uses a flashlight to search underground tunnels. The only difference is that in this game the light is white instead of *yellow. Either way, this is great application of effects to tell a story.
*Correction: I remembered wrong. They are both white.
There are other effects thrown in there, but I will leave those for you to find. The only criticism I have for design is that there are some noticeable spelling errors.
It has a lot of great things going for it. Compelling beginning, whimsical setting, and the freedom to simply wander. Unfortunately, there are snags that cut the game short. Just as things get going the game decides to jump out and say, "surprise! The end." If this were fixed, I would give this a higher score, without question.
I do think the surreal city setting makes it a game worth playing for a few playthroughs. But playing one that trips you up with random and contextless endings without providing the ability to save weakens the experience.
This game lets you explore Octavia, a city described in the book Invisible Cities (by Italo Calvino) as a spider-web city hung on a great web of ropes, pipes, etc.
You are offered three different items to take with you. When you arrive, you have time to explore and look around, seeing the wonders of the city.
But not very much time. After 20 turns, the game ends with a vague message. I unfortunately got that message on my first playthrough right when I was trying to click a moving link, so I thought that this was a 'failure message'. With no undo, I was out of luck.
But I think the intent here is that you explore for a short time but are unable to see it all in one playthrough. That's a beautiful idea, but I find the execution a bit wanting. There's no indication that that's what the ending signifies, and the other review on IFDB I read also seemed to consider it as a bug or problem of some sorts.
I'm giving 3 stars mostly because I like the conceit both of the spiderweb city but also because of the idea of the limited time, even if it came off a bit weird.
Recon, the author's entry last year, had a lot of moving parts and a backstory that took a few playthroughs to put together. HbT is similar–it's a lot smaller, but it feels more organized, and it's still fantastical, though the fantasy veers toward general abstract stuff more than sci-fi. I think it's a technical step up, but there were a few design choices that made it hard for me to say what I wanted, as quickly as I wanted. I'm not surprised a few reviews rolled in late. There's an unexpected hard break just when it seems things are starting, and people may wonder what's up. Sure, we see the "end" in small print below a separator, but it's not clear how or why until we've played through several times. I thought I'd just walked into a death trap, and I didn't see what I did wrong.
Once I realized that there was a sort of timer where you make so many moves and then just die, things picked up. I was able to plan out relatively modest goals, deciding what part of the city to explore, and how. This is hampered slightly by being unable to reload, at least on Firefox, even with a complete refresh. Fortunately HbT isn't huge.
It starts with a cute puzzle, the sort I felt was the strength of Recon. You are told to choose the shortest stick, and you get a sneak peak, with several different spellings of "stick." These sorts of HTML tricks seem very easy until you have to think of one yourself, and if and when you guess right, you get one of three items. Each is specifically useful at some point in the city, and it's fun to find that point and then do things with or without that item and compare and contrast. I'd consider finding all six such states to complete HbT, such as it is.
There's definitely weirdness about, and for the most part, it works, but I was frustrated that the turn-limit cap along with options such as "turn right/turn left" that didn't give me enough information to work with. So it was a matter of more weird detail, please! You want to feel helpless, but not too helpless. I think some sort of timer can and should be integrated in a post-comp release, and I'd also have liked the cut-outs not to interrupt a choice I made beyond traveling somewhere new. Surely there's a way to incorporate a game flag and also to say, okay, the story won't end just before you get to talk to someone. As-is, it was a bit jarring. It seems like a forgivable oversight, but it's also a high priority when it comes to revision.
I think these issues impacted the replayability the author wanted to give the player and which, with the game text, seemed even more rewarding with a smoother gameplay experience. I might even suggest a small bonus to people who keep replaying, as payback for their faith. Note the timer, not with just a number but with narrative cues, and also maybe fill in details of paths they have already seen. It's tricky, but I think that would combine the whole "you can't explore everything at once" aesthetic with "you don't want to repeat yourself too much." Perhaps I'm greedy, too, but the ability to constantly restart as with Let Them Eat Cake might open the way for a grander vision once you've hit all the six states I mentioned above. UNDO might be a bridge too far, but I'd also like to get greedy and maybe track which branches have been fully explored and which haven't. This is nontrivial coding, but it seems worthwhile.
I was glad to see reviews pour in late for HbT, because it deserved them, but I'd also have liked it to be less forbidding, and the forced game-over probably intimidated people. So I'd be very glad indeed if my main questions became obsolete! How much you should push the player back is tough to judge, but it's not clear to me right away why things should stop completely, and I think people legitimately had trouble figuring things out. Here's where my great enemy timed text would be quite welcome, before a "restart?" link popped up. It would be an appropriate penalty for a player's inattention. There are other solutions, too. Unrolling everything too quickly here wuld probably ruin the author's vision, but I think a compromise would be welcome.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Gather round folks, for I am about to propose a parabolic theory of metaphors: on one side, you have metaphors that are effective because they’re subtly allusive, creating a tickle of almost-recognition at the back of your subconscious that you can’t ignore. As the metaphor gets more obvious, it gets more plodding, the idea clearer but weighed down by impossible-to-overlook clumsiness. If a writer’s bold enough, though, they can push past this trough, build the image up until it’s a monolith, commanding attention and understanding, imparting power through sheer avoirdupois. So it is with Italo Calvino’s Octavia, a city suspended above an abyss by a constantly-eroding web of chains and ropes that anchors it – for now – to the mountainous heights, a city that’s the setting for, and also main character in, Hanging by Threads (while the debt of inspiration isn’t mentioned in a credits or about passage so far as I could see, and it’s renamed Oban, there’s a hat-tip of acknowledgment to Calvino in one of the game’s branches).
In this short, choice-based game, you play tourist in this impossible place. Brought to its precincts by a guide and told you can only bring one object with you, you have your choice of areas to sightsee – delving down into the lower passages of the city, ironically enough, gives you a vista of the emptiness below, while climbing up will give you a taste of how the city lives, from its bars where you drink clouds to bazaars that run on the honor system. Many of these scenes are exotic and compelling (there’s a glimpse of Oban’s funerary customs that’s especially worth witnesses), but over all of them looms the inevitability that some day, one of the shakes that periodically rattle the city will bring everything crashing down.
Described like this, the game sounds awesome – to go back to parabola thing, you couldn’t think of a clearer metaphor for the trapeze-swinger’s ignorance of mortality we all need to conjure up to go about our daily lives, but because it’s so obvious, and the imagery of the city so rich, as an idea it really works. Unfortunately, the prose often doesn’t live up to this promise, with some awkwardness in the writing undercutting its effectiveness. Like, here’s an exchange between the protagonist and a local priest who’s pushing back on the idea that the city’s doom doesn’t need to be inevitable:
“Don’t you see it a bit excessive? Has no one thought about how to save the city? Keeping it afloat. I suppose the network could be repaired, right?”
“Sacrilege!” The priest turns red and lets out a large amount of air through his nose. “This city was meant to have an ending, we are no one to contrary God’s wishes. Don’t let those hippies brainwash you, this is the way” he says pointing the chasm.
Again, the idea – of a religion so dedicated to humility and the status quo that it endorses mass suicide – has a lot of force, but the references to hippies, the substitution of contrary for contradict, and the overly-conclusory nature of the exchange means that force is dissipated.
My other complaint about the game – well, the rest of this is spoilery, albeit for the end of a game that takes maybe ten minutes per playthrough: (Spoiler - click to show) pretty soon after you start your exploration of the city – usually after I’d been to two locations of the eight or so on offer – you see the following text pop up without warning, and without any apparent connection to whatever dialogue choice or navigation option you’d just selected:
"My surroundings seem strange, as if everything is moving and I can’t stand, so I sit where I am. There’s no doubt now. I don’t have time to watch what the others are doing, and being honest I don’t care, they should be ready for it, and I shouldn’t be living this situation."
And then after a minute of looking at that, you get a thank you for playing screen, at which point I realized that what this cryptic text is saying is that the city’s fallen, right after we started our visit. I really don’t like this choice! It encourages replays, I suppose – as does the choice of which object to bring in, though I found the use of the binoculars at least to be underwhelming, since it just gives access to a view that your character declines to describe in an epic copout – but it makes each visit comically short, and it also winds up negating this incredible metaphor. The point of the image, the way the player relates it to their own experience, is that the city could collapse at any moment; if it does collapse, that’s no longer a metaphor, that’s a disaster.
I’ll repeat that the overall idea here, and many of the specific ideas too, are very fine indeed. With some more polish on the writing, and subbing the rocks fall, everybody dies ending, it could be something special. As it is, though, it sits too close to the middle of the parabola of metaphor to be entirely successful.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
A short exploration IF of a tantalizing setting. There are some early nods to a specific protagonist that needs a cane, including one nice bit of business on a bridge. That specificity seems to fade into the background pretty quickly, and doesn’t seem to inform the experience beyond that. Personality-wise the protagonist is a blank slate, which is not uncommon in IF that wants the player to step in.
There are choices to make, both in wandering direction and equipment. In all cases that I hit, there was little to no indication of what effect your choices could have, so they all ended up being arbitrary. None of them seemed character based. That’s not so terrible in the wandering around part. It does convey the exploring-a-new-city feeling of not even knowing where the interesting stuff might be. In the case of equipment it does rankle a bit, particularly when depending on your arbitrary choice some areas of the city might be closed off later.
The setting is really the star here and in concept it's a pretty cool one: a city suspended on ropes and chains between two mountains. The narration that describes it varies from scene to scene. Some scenes are wonderfully painted with vertiginous heights, colorful skies, physically hefty and sagging environs. But there are just as many scenes where details jar to the point of ‘I don’t think that’s how that’d work.’ If your city is suspended by ropes, then torches and holy crap bonfires seem like a REALLY bad idea. Kids play with rocks which, where are they getting those exactly? Most egregiously, the ropes are repeatedly described as fraying and worn. I would think rope maintenance would have to be top priority for the city council. I mean they don’t need to worry about sewer or trash collection right? (Though dear lord the land dwellers beneath them) At first I was thinking maybe it was the poorer sections that suffered neglect, which would have been a nice detail. But no, that was me me adding things.
There is definitely something to be said that nit-picking details in stories is garbage criticism. When you start complaining about the realism of fantasy, what is even the point? (see also incel criticism of Rings of Power race in fantasy races. Actually, that’s a little different. I’m not talking about racism masquerading as ‘realism’ Forget I brought it up.) While I think the prescription to embrace fantasy on its own terms is a strong idea, that doesn’t change that effective use of tangible details helps immersion. Despite the prodding of the angels on our shoulder, tonally inconsistent half-baked details can jar us.
Yes, Sparks of Joy wandering around, but as many ‘I don’t think…’ moments. Maybe more disconcertingly, your ability to wander is limited. In some cases you can’t go back to explore untaken paths. In others, sections are shut off because you took the wrong equipment. And then it ends - practically out of nowhere. In two playthroughs, I went down completely different paths but ended at the same abrupt and narratively unsatisfying end screen. There was no arc to what I’d seen and the end text did not wrap up my experience in any meaningful way. It just ended. I think there is a really powerful nugget of setting here, but for a truly satisfying experience, it should be polished a bit, and some sort of narrative arc applied to it.
Playtime: 20min, two playthroughs, same ending
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Notable
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless