The Chimerist

Posts tagged reviews

Like Maud, I fell for text adventure games in the 1980s. They were exciting precisely because you couldn’t detect the boundaries and limitations of the world they constructed, and because it felt like you could navigate that world at will. If you turned left, you might discover a castle, while turning right would lead to a dark and menacing forest. Your choice!

But the earliest adventure games, like many of their graphical descendants, turned out to be a lot more constrained than they at first appeared. You could do “anything,” but somehow you always wound up looking for a crowbar or a box of matches so that you could execute some banal task that would ultimately give you access to another bit of imaginary space in which you’d have to perform yet another inane job. These games are fun in the way any puzzle can be fun, but they aren’t really stories. The best of the bunch, the game Myst and its sequels, could be gorgeous and absorbing, but not ever truly moving the way a novel or dramatic work can be. It was once fashionable to claim that games like Myst pointed to the future of storytelling, but the rudimentary stories offered by the vast majority of the genre are less compelling than the average folktale, let alone a play or film.

For that reason, Yesterday by Pendulo Studios is an intriguing departure. Yes, there’s a lot of rummaging around for pen knives and oil cans in order to fix machinery or unearth hidden keys, but the game is more story than puzzles, and the story itself is a gruesomely baroque concoction of satanic cults, renegade academics, mad preachers, gnomic martial arts masters, serial killers, reincarnation and a sinister billionaire.

The central narrative of Yesterday is like the plot of an adequate B-movie in the supernatural thriller genre. This may sound like faint praise, but this is the only game I’ve ever played in which the plot achieves that much substance. There’s a prologue involving a volunteer for a homeless center who falls into the clutches of religious fanatics living in a deserted subway station, then the action resolves around John Yesterday, a private detective with total amnesia striving to recover memories of his past after an apparent suicide attempt. Amnesia is a fairly common affliction for video game protagonists; the player doesn’t know who the character is, and memory loss puts the character himself in the same boat. But Yesterday is unusual in keeping the purpose of the game firmly focused on reconstructing the narrative of John’s life.

The characters, including John himself, are the robotic animated figures typical of many computer games, and the quality of the animation here is not especially high. (Particularly unsettling is the rendering of people’s mouths as they speak — they all seem to suffer from a surfeit of teeth.) This is, of course, a big problem in all such games, even those whose animation is much more realistic; however accomplished, these drawings will never be as emotionally engaging as a real actor’s face, although the player’s investment in scoring and achieving other goals will usually compensates for that. 

A good test of the strength of any game’s narrative is to ask whether it would be at all interesting if the gameplay and goals were subtracted — if all the fighting/killing were removed, or all of the puzzles. What makes Yesterday exceptional lies in the answer to that question. To my surprise, I found myself genuinely curious about the mystery of John’s identity and how he lost it while engaged in some highly dubious research. This is largely due to the game’s ambiguous villain, Henry White, who looks like an over-dentated Ron Howard in the “Happy Days” era and whose true motives remain enigmatic up to the end.

Storytelling and gameplay, however, are almost always at odds with each other, if for no other reason that that a game hinges on the player’s volition while stories require the audience to surrender to the storyteller’s vision. With Yesterday, the tasks demanded to move the narrative forward feel like trivial, mildly annoying obstacles that don’t have much relevance to the player’s real concern: getting to the bottom of John Yesterday’s dilemma and figuring out what Henry is up to. This sensation isn’t helped by some fairly awkward game mechanics.

Yesterday offers a choice of endings, although there really isn’t that much difference among them. (Some are more gruesome than others, but the game overall is not for the squeamish.) That feels right; one of the great satisfactions offered by a good story is the feeling that its conclusion is both unpredictable and, when revealed, inevitable. 

— Laura Miller

Chopsticks ($6.99) falls somewhere between a book and an app. It’s a scrapbook “novel” telling the story of a difficult romance between two high school students, published by Razorbill, a Young Readers imprint at Penguin, in both app and print forms. The challenge of assembling this fusion of photography, video, animation, and audio clips was recently recounted in the Wall Street Journal as part of a longer story on the enhanced ebook genre. Chopsticks was held up as an important test case on the viability of the form.

I have my doubts about the inclusion of too much visual material in a text narrative (outside of picture books for young children, that is), but Chopsticks has very little text to begin with. The characters write each other notes and IMs, and there are faux documents from schools and the sanitarium where the character Glory, a piano prodigy, is sequestered for a while. You aren’t told the story, as is the case with prose novels and graphic novels; instead, you have to deduce it from the images and scraps of writing supplied by the authors, Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. While some of these are fairly straightforward — programs for Glory’s performances and newspaper clippings describing her breakdown at Carnegie Hall — others are winningly subtle: a stack of board games momentarily puzzled me until I realized it was meant to indicate how Glory killed time in the sanitarium.

This element of detective work made Chopsticks much more engaging than I’d expected. I think fiction works in part by eliciting an imaginative investment from its reader. Instead of the access to the characters’ inner selves that prose usually offers, Chopsticks shows us what they look like, what they draw (Frank, Glory’s boyfriend, is an artist), what they pack for a trip, what they scribble in the margins of the books they’re reading. From these clues, the reader is invited to imagine not just what’s happened, but how the two principles feel and think about it.

The only frustration I felt with Chopsticks resulted from the abundance of embedded YouTube clips showing what the characters watched on TV or compiled into the music mix tapes they swap. The Wall Street Journal article explains that this was a strategy to work around the rights nightmares associated with using music and video from copyrighted sources, which is clever, but ultimately not that successful. You can’t listen to the music while looking at the images in Chopsticks and I, personally, didn’t feel much like pausing to watch music videos by the Decembrists or Death Cab for Cutie. But then, I wouldn’t, and the inclusion of the characters’ favorite songs might be more meaningful to the intended audience.

Will I return to Chopsticks, the way I occasionally return to Touch Press’ landmark enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? Probably not, but that has more to do with the subject matter than the form. I’d love to see an adult story told this way, with images, videos, and interactive garnishes luring me into a puzzle that offered more mystery and ideas. If the videos advanced the story instead of bringing it to a halt, they might seem less of an interruption. As the WSJ explains, putting something like this together is expensive and complicated, more like making a film than writing, editing and publishing a book. But I hope someone tries it.

Laura Miller

Strange Rain is an app released about a year ago, and for a while it was popular — surprisingly so when you consider its ambiguous nature. Is it a music app, an ambient sound effects generator, a game or an enhanced ebook? Apparently, people use it in all of these ways.

Strange Rain fills the screen with the image of a clouded sky. Raindrops fall “down” onto the surface of the glass as if it were a skylight. Moving the tablet around will cause the perspective from this “window” to shift a bit. Pinching can adjust the heaviness of the rain. In Wordless mode, the drops patter pleasantly, and touching the screen produces unstructured, chime-like music. In Whispers mode, single words appear when certain raindrops are touched, words that are all related to rain or water. 

In Story mode, touching the screen produces the first person thoughts of a man taking a break from a situation whose nature is only gradually revealed. If you drag your finger around the screen a different, deeper set of thoughts and ideas appear, in white text instead of black, but emanating from the same man. After you’ve played around with Strange Rain for a while, the silhouette of an airplane will move across the sky. If you tap on the screen frantically, the sky “falls” in a way that suggests a sudden cataclysm. (A Twitter feature has been added, but that seems entirely extraneous to me.)

What’s best about this app is its radically simple beauty and the ambling exploration it promises. There is mystery here, especially in the appearance of the plane. Strange Rain gives the impression that you can’t quite get to the bottom of it, or at least that something momentous awaits just out of reach.

The main shortcoming of Strange Rain is its story (written by creator Erik Loyer ), which, although reasonably well written, reveals itself to be an ordinary domestic drama, the sort of material that might serve as the premise for the stereotypical “New Yorker story.” Even the New Yorker has moved past this formula. Supposedly, the user’s interaction with the screen can change the story, but after multiple plays I haven’t found that to be the case, or at least not so as you’d notice the difference.

Still, I like it, and I’m not alone. Many of the app’s purchasers choose to ignore its Story mode and use the rain sounds as a relaxation tool, setting a timer to turn off the iPad after they fall asleep. Strange Rain is meditative, and how could it be otherwise, really, given that there’s very little a slice of sky can provide as a stage for a story? There’s not much for a protagonist to do, either, while staring upwards. Since it can’t really go anywhere itself, I wish the app’s non-story were more suggestive and enigmatic, giving the reader something to ponder.

Experimenting with the time-honored rules of narrative is a tricky business, a bit like deciding to improvise while baking; there are good reasons why you make cake batter with room-temperature butter, as the flat, rubbery discs produced by alternate methods demonstrate. That’s not to say that new forms of storytelling can’t be achieved in the app format, but I suspect that whoever finally pulls it off will be someone who’s mastered the basics first. Writing seems as if it would be the easiest, cheapest thing to get right in apps like this, but (for that reason perhaps), it’s often the weakest element. I believe that the first really great narrative app will probably be a collaborative effort, like the best graphic novels, but involving a creative programmer as well as a gifted writer and a visual artist.

Laura Miller