IFComp 2015 review: Seeking Ataraxia

Seeking Ataraxia cover Seeking Ataraxia is a choice-based game that describes a couple of ordinary days in the life of a university student who suffers from OCD and anxiety.

The game is a bit buggy and inconsistent in some details, for example the protagonist's apartment keeps reverting overnight from cleaner than it has ever been to total mess, the text talks about an alarm clock's digital display but the illustration shows an old mechanical wind-up clock, and so on. Nothing that couldn't be easily fixed afterwards.

There isn't any mentionable gameplay or plot, but the main goal of these slice-of-life games that describe mental health issues usually differs from other games. Instead of going for entertainment values or explosive action, the goal is often to provide peer support to others diagnosed with the same issues, personal therapy, raising awareness about the symptoms and consequences of mental illnesses, or any combination of them.

Seeking Ataraxia doesn't explicitly tell what its goals are. It's billed only as "a game about anxiety" but it seems to work quite effectively as public education. I certainly learned some things that I didn't previously know about e.g. how OCD can manifest itself. It describes the symptoms personally but neutrally, without preaching or overexplaining. It lets the readers come to their own conclusions about what kind of effect mental health issues have on the protagonist's life.

All passages are illustrated. Art style is consistent throughout.

All passages are illustrated. Art style is consistent throughout.

One problem with mental health issues is that it is often hard to realize that the symptoms might be due to illnesses instead of external causes or personal characteristics. The public service provided by games and other media that accurately represent mental health issues is that they can make people recognize the same symptoms in themselves and seek a diagnose.

It would be interesting to find some data on how effective games like Seeking Ataraxia and Depression Quest are in finding the audience that isn't already aware of the issues they're trying to raise. When a game is purely about the thing it advocates there's risk that it ends up preaching to the choir.

In the best case scenario there's a hook that makes the game attractive to the general audience even when the player don't necessarily actively want to learn about the subject matter. Coming up with such a hook is the hard part though: once you do play the game the effectiveness comes from the relatable everyday setting that would be lost if the plot involved some grand adventure. It might be exciting to play but the credibility of the message would be diminished the farther the plot would deviate from the audience's personal experiences.

IFComp 2015 mini-reviews

by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

Birdland is choice-based young adult fiction about a 14-year-old who, while attending a summer camp, sees strange dreams about birds. Soon the dreams and real world start to converge.

The game has many elements that I generally don't find very appealing, including teenage protagonists, dream sequences, summer camp setting, and almost purely metaphorical/surreal scenes. In less capable hands the outcome could have been disastrous but thanks to above-average writing and skillful game design the overall result manages to avoid most of the pitfalls. Anyone whose personal preferences do match the aforementioned elements should find this one a real treat.

by Moe Zilla

Forever Meow starts as a typical slice-of-cat-life simulator but quickly introduces a twist that averts the common trope. It's not purely the kind of feelgood game the genre dictates because there's a "serious" plot that involves real life-threatening stakes, but once the threat is resolved the ending has again a positive, even euphoric, tone. The story is well worth the 15 minutes it takes to play.

The interaction is slightly more fiddly than it should be. Nodes that advance without choice wait for a keypress but nodes with choices require choosing with mouse click. In practice playing requires having one hand on the keyboard and one hand on the mouse. It also effectively (and unnecessarily) prevents mobile play because there's no way to bring up the virtual keyboard.

by Andrew Schultz

Andrew is known for wordplay based games, but The Problems Compound is only pun-themed. The gameplay is mostly traditional parser IF puzzle solving.

Even though the plot is somewhat random and surreal, the wordplay theme serves as a common thread that gives justification to the otherwise seemingly disconnected elements. The story, characters and geography serve only as excuses to introduce the puns to the game. While the game isn't breaking any new ground, it's solid entertainment for the parser playing masses.

Disclosure: I beta-tested the game.

by Chandler Groover

This is not a review but rather a warning to other unsuspecting players: near the beginning of the game there is a scene that involves extreme animal cruelty, and the choice leading to it doesn't make the fact explicit. If you find the idea uncomfortable it's best to give this one a miss.

IFComp 2015 review: Capsule II – The 11th Sandman

Capsule II cover Science fiction doesn't generally need to explain why its setting includes extraordinary technological advancements. Strong artificial intelligence? Sure. Interstellar travel? Naturally. Telepathy? Why not. The audience doesn't need convincing that such things exist. Science fiction's entire genre premise is imagining futuristic technology and its repercussions.

The trick to writing credible scifi is justifying the things it lacks. Take for example Dune: several thousand years into the future, humanity has regressed into a feudal society with relatively primitive technology. This is explained by the aftermath of a war against intelligent machines that caused a ban on artificial intelligence and advanced computing. They prefer melee weapons because shooting the ubiquitous energy shields will kill the shooter as well. Everything that doesn't fit the expectations of future technology has an explanation.

Capsule II is a choice-based story about someone who wakes up in a giant starship that is transporting half a billion humans in suspended animation from dying Earth to a new planet. The journey takes more than a hundred years and the ship wakes a single person at a time for 8 year shifts to handle unexpected issues.

The setting raises more questions than it answers, and not in a good way. If they knew eight years of solitude has a high chance of driving people crazy, why are the maintenance shifts that long? Why not wake up a team of people for a year at a time? How is it possible that they provided only a year's worth of entertainment when even a single modern iPad can hold more data than that, especially if they were concerned about people losing their minds to boredom? Why would cryogenically frozen people need nutrients? Why does this immensely big starship that must be as big as a city carry so little water and food that the only person consuming them has to ration? Why does the person literally responsible for the entire human race act like the only training they've got for the job was a weekend long crash course? Things like these need some kind of in-universe explanation. Cryosleep and starships transporting millions of people are still within genre expectations, but unexplained organizational problems are not.

The other issue is the humor. Not that the jokes themselves would be bad, but they're just so out of place and incredibly tacked-on in the otherwise dark tone the prose is going for. There's nothing that breaks immersion faster than a random throwaway joke. For example, when the protagonist switches on the ship computer it responds with a surfer dude personality. After this brief initial interaction the personality is discarded, never mentioned again, and from then on the computer displays a neutral voice. So what was the point?

That said, on the whole these are still minor quibbles. Capsule II closely resembles Moon both in style and content; I would be very surprised if it wasn't used as an insipration. The story has a certain vibe to it that compares favorably to classical 50s/60s scifi literature and space travel aesthetics brought on by Alien. The graphical design is spot on and the text effects, graphics and layout fit together perfectly.

Occasionally the story evokes vivid imagery of solitude-induced dementia. During the endgame the viewpoint switches rapidly between two characters, which underlines the chaotic situation the protagonist is in. The author has succeeded in one of the hardest design challenges of choice-based fiction: pacing the story so that it keeps moving forward without the whole or any individual part feeling too short or too long.