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Maybe broken psychological horror, November 22, 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 havenít enjoyed a game much, but canít 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 doesnít meet them because the gameplay is at war with the theme, or the characters need to support a level of emotional engagement theyíre just not up to, or what have you, thatís fair enough and I feel like I can evaluate those shortfalls in good faith Ė likewise itís no big deal to identify discrete bugs, even potentially far-reaching, gamestopping ones. But when I canít get a sense of the creative agenda, and there appear to be bugs whose scope I donít fully understand, itís really challenging to figure out what to say thatís at all useful: were things largely working as intended, and Iím 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 didnít 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, Iíve got that dilemma here. Staycation didnít work for me, but Iím flummoxed to pinpoint what specifically went wrong. Maybe itís best to just recount my experience with it? This is another Texture piece, whose premise is that youíre a young New Yorker whose housemates (who are romantic partners Ė 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 Ė 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 youíre a bit of an introvert and looking forward to some time alone? After some painting and lighting some incense Ė relaxing! Ė 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 Ė 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 Ė 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 ďYou choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow,Ē 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 wasnít intended Ė at least that last game-ender has to be a bug Ė but based on this sort of heap of incidents, Iím 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 doesnít 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 whatís supposed to be going on in Staycation. Maybe weíre 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 weíre a creatively frustrated type? None of these interpretations quite work, and I canít 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 protagonistís mindset, and improved pacing would have made the game more successful, but I honestly canít tell you what combination, or what success would wind up looking like, though Iíd be very curious to find out!