Ectocomp 2018: Restless

Ectocomp 2018: Restless

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Restless is a choice-based game by Emily Short, made in Character Engine.

I played three times – the first time I think I died because I offended Sylvia to the point where she decided to get rid of me. The second time I played to what seems like a satisfactory ending, and the third time I played to explore the other options a little bit more. Mostly, though, I generally stuck to the “open” path with the occasional branch to “curious” as I wanted to learn more about the protagonist and the other characters she interacted with.

Getting used to the interface took me a while. Based on what I could gather, selecting (highlighting) an emotion displays the response appropriate to that emotion, which is randomly generated from a seemingly fixed template or templates, and de-selecting the emotion reproduces the “default” response that is not attached to a specific emotion and that is likewise randomly generated. (Just to squeeze in a comment here: this is a risky approach because permutations are added at the risk of intimidating the player by virtue of seeming overly complicated. While I appreciate that subtle differences in the nuances of two different words can mean a lot, this being a random feature means that the player can’t easily choose a nuance that he/she most identifies with; also, choosing between two nuances, like “acquaintance” and “friend”, doesn’t seem to produce any tangible effect, at least as far as I could tell.) Finally, when two or more emotions are simultaneously selected, the responses attached to each emotion appear as though they had been individually selected. But here a bug exists: if too many emotions are highlighted and remain highlighted even after a response is chosen, the next set of responses that appear when the character you are speaking to says something that prompts a reply do not display properly, offering no clue as to what emotion they could be attached to. I think, also, that there is something of a missed opportunity here: two emotions highlighted at the same time, should, to me, produce combinations of their individual emotions that are reflected in a new variety of responses. Yet, as mentioned, highlighting more than one emotion at a time doesn’t seem to do anything at all – in which case the ability to highlight more than one emotion at a time comes across as an unintentional slip that only complicates the setup unnecessarily.

As a conversation-based game, however, the dialogue felt invisible, which is a sign that it is written well, just as natural, realistic conversation doesn’t call attention to itself. Some responses even go beyond this, containing deictic expressions that, rightfully and realistically, are only comprehensible to the speakers present in the context of that conversation. A good example of this is the response “Internet?” towards Sylvia’s statement that she surfs the net when she can’t sleep. I initially interpreted this as a question asked through narrowed eyes, betraying the ghost’s suspicion that Sylvia is doing questionable things online. Instead, Sylvia unhesitatingly replies with an explanation of what the Internet is, which, on hindsight, is perfectly logical: Sylvia must have detected a tone of confusion, rather than suspicion, that would not have been manifested in writing. The fact that the game makes some of these references explicit and the rest implicit shows a good awareness of the dynamics of conversation.

One thing that’s strange, though, is the ability to change topics suddenly. Deciding on the emotional tenor of your words based on the context of what has just been said is one thing; sudden topic shifts is another. The prevalence of the latter throughout the game causes the human element that the conversation has established to be lost, reducing it to a mechanical interrogation. Granted, conversations are essentially impossible to model because so many factors have to be taken into account. To give just one extreme example, a single remark that wounds an interlocutor could drastically affect the nature of the conversation, tensing up the room in a way that is subtly but surely reflected in the resulting speech of both interlocutors, who might even decide to end the conversation prematurely. This game, as mentioned, already does a very decent job. Quality aside, just the sheer number of responses and their follow-ups speaks to a level of dedication that should be commended.

ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Rum & raisin. A comforting read, one that sits nicely in your stomach, but that, prior to digestion, demands attention at every juncture.

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