Devlog #3: Review of and my takeaways from "Strayed" (by Adventure Cow)

With my writing, I learnt more from reading books than from taking creative writing classes. And I feel the same way about Interactive Fiction: Playing games of other creators helps me improve on storytelling, pace, mechanics, look n feel, etc. The last game I played is called Strayed and was created by Adventure Cow. This is my review as well as a roundup of what I'm taking away from it for myself. Spoiler: I liked it, but I have my fair share of criticism. 

About the story

You are in your car on your way home, when you happen upon a forrest. On your way into it, you hear about strange sightings in the woods. Then you run into a wild animal...

I really don't want to say more, because for one, the way the story develops from here depends on the player, and revealing more would spoil the fun of experiencing the haunting story Adventure Cow have created.

I really enjoyed the 20 odd minutes each run took. Right from the word go, the narration pulls you into the story. I couldn't wait to find out the secrets lying behind the mysterious happenings in said forest, and every time I finished a run, I restarted the game to take a different path of choices. 

And I wasn't disappointed. Strayed is Interactive Fiction as I like it: You need several runs to get the big picture, but each run has a satisfying ending on its own, depending on the choices you make.

About the execution

The version I played was for Android – I bought it on Google Play. I was quite happy the developers provided night mode, because reading it on dark background actually did contribute to the haunting atmosphere. Stupid, really, as I've read tons of horror literature on white paper in books. But somehow, when I play Interactive Fiction, I've come to expect the execution to somehow resemble the theme of the game. But I'm getting carried away. So I loved night mode.

The design of the game is pretty simple. Text on background. No images. That's it. And that's ok, as the writing does all the work. I don't really need sound or visuals in Interactive Fiction, in fact, I prefer it when the game is realized purely in HTML and CSS. Because, let's face it, if I want visuals or sounds, I'll just play a normal video game. The point of IF being, for me at least, that you're playing a book. So Strayed's all good on that side. Sure, personally I'd have preferred for the header to disappear while playing but that's just me. I was captivated by the story nonetheless.

What I didn't like about the execution was one particular feature: parts of the narration are variables that change depending on your choices – so far, so normal. In the case of Strayed, these story variables are underlined which disconcerted me in the beginning. In my upcoming game (and in other IF games), in-line text that is underlined (or marked-up in any other way) normally reveals complemental narration or relevant information. In Strayed, nothing happens after a click. It's just underlined, static text, which I found to be a nuisance.

I'm not quite sure what the reason is that Adventure Cow decided to underline text, but for me, it somehow broke the immersion. Whilst playing, I don't really want to know what I changed, I like these kind of things to be organic (in narration, that is; I'm not talking about stats).

Maybe the creators would like to comment on this, we'll see, because I really would like to know the reason behind this decision.

Summary

If you're into Interactive Fiction and you like mystery or even horror, you should try Strayed. The writing is stellar and it has great replay value. It's not the most innovative game on the market, far from it – but I'm guessing that wasn't the intention anyway. It is a nice story and enjoyable IF experience.

Takeaways

  • Good writing is key – if the writing is good, the look and feel are only secondary
  • That said, there were one or two points in the game where I thought, hey, I would've loved to have say in this decision or this development. This made me go back and take a closer look at my narration. The last thing I want to do is to take my players hostage. I wrote about this particular subject in this devlog. Of course you have to stay in control of your story and it's an economical question as well, but I want to avoid narration where I override the player too often. 
  • In my game, I'll opt to not reveal the story variables in play (except for stats et al). But I'd love to hear thoughts from other players, how they experienced this particular aspect in Strayed.
  • The whole product – from the game itself to marketing and presentation – is very, very professional. Adventure Cow are a model to follow.

What did you think of the game? And what would you like to see in an IF survival horror game? I'm currently working on American Angst, a text-based survival horror game. Find out more.

Comments

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The underlined text in Strayed totally threw me until I read about it here at your Devlog. So I went back and played it a few more times to see how it felt, knowing that what was underlined were changes in the story based on my choices. The underlining didn't add much; in fact I found it distracting. I think there is a case to be made for letting the player know when their choices have made a difference in the story. Some of  the Telltale games could be cited : "So and so will remember what you said..." Part of me does like to know explicitly how my choices affected the story—not just in stats—but it depends on how it's done. 

Look forward to your game.