The Staycation

by Maggie H


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Number of Ratings: 9
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1-9 of 9

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A lot of potential, but missed the mark., May 24, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

~~ Updated Review from the 2022 IFComp bc I played the game again ~~

The Staycation is a short game about loneliness, psychosis? and a confusion about which genre/type it is supposed to fall in. The player is set to stay home while their housemate goes on a trip with her boyfriend. It becomes an opportunity to do whatever you want... or is it?

The Staycation marketed itself as a horror slice-of-life, as you are forced to endure a nightmarish ordeal, forcing yourself to question your choices (a.k.a. you hate being left behind and alone). I personally enjoy psychological thrillers/horror, but I was disappointed to find the game didn't really deliver on either the horror or the slice-of-life aspect.

This time around, I also went through the game multiple times, and exhausting all limited options (helping your roommate with her luggage or leave her to deal with it, interacting with her or her boyfriend or ignoring them, enjoying yourself with a book or scrolling down your feed, and the final choice <- that is really it). Yet, it felt like the horror was only superficial and the slice-of-life very minimal. The final choice (making you realise you should have not stayed home) feels very underwhelming, as the hints of some past trauma and self-harm really comes out of nowhere...

As for the slice-of-life bit, the premise talks about days alone, but the story only seems to account for one (the one where your housemate and her bf leaves). Either the player's nightmare happens for days but it is brushed over, or there was a typo somewhere. This honestly added to the underwhelmingness of the piece. A build up of strange occurrences while the player goes about their day (with some more hints of their worries) would have made the story more poignant, in my view.*
*it was mentioned in the Forum during the IFComp, that the submitted Texture games were part of a workshop which lasted three weeks. It would not be surprising that a lack of time went into play for this bit. Still, other Texture entries did succeed to have a stronger story...

Still, there were some glimmers that helped the game. First, the illustrations were a nice touch, especially during the "nightmare" sequence. It really helped the horror aspect. I also enjoyed how calm and comforting the game picture was. Almost reminiscent of those pulpy book covers

Secondly, the use of senses as actions was a great choice, especially for the horror theme! Even the focus on strange smell (with the incense) or the peculiar noise (of your car) added to the uneasiness that the story was supposed to convey.

And finally, the formatting of the choices stood out among the other Texture entries of that edition of the IFComp. The Staycation is the only one using emoji in the action boxes rather than text. Honestly, kinda brilliant.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Sisyphus Wept, December 6, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This was my first exposure to Texture pieces. Maggie H’s use of it, including formatting, color choice, response management and graphics use felt like an extension of their expressive prose in setting an overall mood of the piece which I’ll call ‘lazy disquiet.’ Even where the choices were limited to one or just a “next” button, the text blocks, breaks and changes all felt deliberate and evocative in a really nice way.

But there were bugginess issues. In particular, it seemed that regardless of my choices (and boy did I try a lot of permutations of them) I could only get at most two nights’ sleep that ended either in waking up with an unexplained loss of time that seemed narratively important, or on a page whose bug was that none of the presented choices allowed you to leave the page. Stuck.

I hit both of these end states within 15 minutes and spent the next hour and a quarter trying choice combinations and failing to achieve a different result. Early on, this actually seemed intended (stuck bug notwithstanding), striking a “Russian Doll” / “Edge of Tomorrow” / “Happy Birthday to Me” vibe which generally is catnip for me. (Just realized I didn’t invoke “Groundhog Day” above. Is this where we are now? We’ve now got so many it’s lost its primacy as naming this genre?) If that was not the intent, boy did I misread it, though it was that read that motivated me to try and push through.

According to my arbitrary judging criteria, my first few playthroughs elicited true Sparks of Joy in turn of phrase, surprising interactions, creepy description variations. This was not to last. Repetition, especially in time loop type games relies on setting narrative expectations, then either building on them or infinitely and creatively varying them. Without either, there are two possible progressions: long blocks of text will be ignored and clicked through mechanically; short bursts of text will be read so frequently that, like rapidly repeating words for a not-so-long period of time they will lose all meaning. Both happened here, though a third thing did also. Maggie H’s prose is wryly singular in a way that sustains it for a while. But with repetition, many passages seemed to undergo distillation - with every cycle, they concentrated. Not unlike boiling sugar water until it sublimates from lightly sweet liquid to way-too-sweet syrup. An example: the game poetically presents a few things as “gaping.” That is an insanely powerful word, immediately invoking a symphony of feelings. But the more you read it, the stronger its impact is, until you start engaging it with “Is this really the right word here?” “This is saying a lot more than it should.” “Oh my God please stop saying ‘gaping.’”

So I’m left with very positive feelings of my first half hour, quickly eroded away through repetition and lack of progress. My criteria shows its flaws: while my impression showed “Sparks of Joy” initially, repetition eventually sanded those moments down to “Mechanical.” Alternately, if repetition was NOT the point of the game at all, maybe my experience was due to “Intrusively Buggy”-ness. (There is a third option. That I was too dense to make progress, missing some obvious out for over an hour. I acknowledge the possibility but “Just Know Something You Can’t Figure Out” has never been actionable feedback for me.)

Played: 10/3/22
Playtime: 1.5hrs, stuck for 1.25 of it
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy -> Mechanical/Intrusive
Would Play Again? Maybe, If reminded and bugfixed

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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- Cerfeuil (*Teleports Behind You* Nothing Personnel, Kid), November 30, 2022

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Maybe broken psychological horror, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I have a really hard time writing reviews when I haven’t enjoyed a game much, but can’t tell how much of my dissatisfaction was due to the design and writing, and how much to bugs. I try (though often fail, I know) to spend at least part of the time in my reviews assessing how well a game achieves what appear to be its goals, and if it doesn’t meet them because the gameplay is at war with the theme, or the characters need to support a level of emotional engagement they’re just not up to, or what have you, that’s fair enough and I feel like I can evaluate those shortfalls in good faith – likewise it’s no big deal to identify discrete bugs, even potentially far-reaching, gamestopping ones. But when I can’t get a sense of the creative agenda, and there appear to be bugs whose scope I don’t fully understand, it’s really challenging to figure out what to say that’s at all useful: were things largely working as intended, and I’m pinning my confusion on a few minor bugs to avoid owning up to being a big thicko? Or was there actually a masterful design whose shape I didn’t get to apprehend due to some unfortunate bugs? Either way, besides the author hopefully realizing they have some fixes to make, I doubt anyone would get much out of my virtual gum-flapping.

(I know, I know, how is that different from any of my other reviews, etc.)

Anyway, I’ve got that dilemma here. Staycation didn’t work for me, but I’m flummoxed to pinpoint what specifically went wrong. Maybe it’s best to just recount my experience with it? This is another Texture piece, whose premise is that you’re a young New Yorker whose housemates (who are romantic partners – you must feel a bit of a third wheel) decide to go for a trip to warmer climes to escape the northeastern winter. You decline, however – this is railroaded despite there being various options, which show up as emoji (?) though thankfully you get a preview in words of what each potential action will be. Apparently you’re a bit of an introvert and looking forward to some time alone? After some painting and lighting some incense – relaxing! – you turn in, only to be woken by scratching in the middle of the night: your cat, which can either come off comforting or menacing depending on the actions you pick.

Either way the vibe goes from cosy to horrific in the course of one like 50 word passage; my first time through, I somehow jumped forward in time, staying I think with my parents and reflecting vaguely on something highly traumatic that had just happened – at which point the game ended. So I tried again, making slightly different choices, which led to much the same events except upon the cat entering, the game seemed to rewind to the painting sequence – which I thought was a bug, though from looking at the blurb it sounds like repetition is supposed to be part of the experience? This time I made slightly different choices once again, and wound up at a passage reading “You choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow,” with a check and an X as my verb options, but nothing to apply them to, making it impossible to progress further in the game.

I assume some of what I encountered wasn’t intended – at least that last game-ender has to be a bug – but based on this sort of heap of incidents, I’m having extreme difficulty figuring out what was supposed to happen and how I was supposed to be feeling. Partially this is due to the fact that the game moves really, really fast. Despite the two hour playtime listed in the blurb, each of my tries lasted maybe five or ten minutes, and the shifts from socially-anxious interactions with housemates, to laid-back alone time, to night terrors played out with virtually no transitions between them, leaving me with an emotional hangover that had me still reacting to the previous sequence while a new, tonally distinct one was playing out. The writing doesn’t give much in the way of prompting, either, consisting of workmanlike but not especially evocative prose, with the occasional infelicity:

"Incense alights in its holder."

That must be magic incense!

I can try to reverse-engineer a sense of what’s supposed to be going on in Staycation. Maybe we’re awkward with our roomies and not going with them because even in the opening of the game, the protagonist is already on a repeat of the time cycle, so they know this is how things have to play out? Perhaps the attempt at painting shifting the mood from satisfaction to fear indicates that we’re a creatively frustrated type? None of these interpretations quite work, and I can’t say that even on repeat plays things cohered enough for me to even figure out how my expectations were being disappointed. Certainly some combination of bug fixes, more focus on establishing the protagonist’s mindset, and improved pacing would have made the game more successful, but I honestly can’t tell you what combination, or what success would wind up looking like, though I’d be very curious to find out!

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- Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.), November 20, 2022

- OverThinking, November 16, 2022

- Karl Ove Hufthammer (Bergen, Norway), November 15, 2022

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Horror? Slice of Life?, November 4, 2022

The concept behind The Staycation is straightforward yet murky. The general premise is that the protagonist's housemate Claudia is going on vacation with her boyfriend, allowing the protagonist to have the house to themselves for a while. The protagonist is looking forward to some quiet time alone, hence calling it a “staycation.” Everything soon becomes vague.

The gameplay looks like this: (Spoiler - click to show) You cannot sleep, you hear strange sounds, your cat startles you, you hear more strange sounds, you feel the urge to check your phone, and then you realize that you do not like being home alone after all. These events convey a simple enough narrative about someone reconsidering their comfort zone of being in an empty house. But there are horror elements injected into the gameplay that make this storyline feel undeveloped.

Horror elements consist of (Spoiler - click to show) being unable to stop scratching yourself and frantically wondering why you refer to Claudia as your housemate instead of as your own mom. You are not really sure of what is going on. Perhaps there is stronger horror themes in this game. However, part of the game is broken, which prevents the player from investigating what they see in the game.

I ran into a broken page that prevented me from moving forward when I tried to purse the (Spoiler - click to show) path of self-denial in the gameplay. It said, "You choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow." This game is made with Texture. You make choices by selecting boxes and dragging them over the text to see what words the box can be applied to. In this case, there were two boxes at the bottom of the screen, a green checkmark and a red X. Moving them around the screen failed to reveal any sections that could be connected to either box. I had to restart.

Also, the game’s description says that there is imagery, but the only major visual was a (Spoiler - click to show) silhouette (a cute silhouette) of a cat in a doorway. There are also some creative emojis to illustrate certain actions. Otherwise, the game largely consists of text only.

To summarize, The Staycation is not as developed as it could have been, especially since part of the game is a dead end. If you have been planning to play it, I would still encourage you to give it a shot simply because it is so short. While the horror in the game is flimsy, the experience of unexpected nervousness while being at home alone is real. If anything, that human element is its one strength. Otherwise, it is not really something I would recommend. If it were more polished that could change.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A short texture game about horror with some emojis and pictures, October 12, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: less than 15 minutes

This game was listed as a 2-hour game, so I was expecting the largest Texture game ever, but it turned out to be less than 15 minutes long.

In this game, your roommates are going on a trip while you are left behind. Alone in the night, you face a few frightening encounters, and have a disturbing morning.

This is a Texture game, where you drag actions onto nouns, and here all the actions are represented by emojis.

I had trouble forming a coherent story out of this; it's mostly vibes, but it seems to contain elements of anxiety, self-harm, and something weird involving your friends?

An interesting experiment, but not one the grabbed me. It's polished and descriptive, but I didn't form an emotional connection and struggled with the interactivity.

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