Review: Spiritfarer (Nintendo Switch)

I am attempting to put some thought into the 2021 Hugo Award Video Game category. In earlier posts, I’ve tried to identify possible contenders and one reason for doing that is to help me make choices. There are a lot of games out there and the cost and time investment for games can be significant (and not always proportional). So I have used some of the data to pick out games I haven’t played that

  • are technically eligible
  • available on a platform I have access to (basically Mac, iOS or Switch)
  • aren’t wholly unsuited to me (i.e. require more coordination than I’m physically capable of)
  • look like they might be interesting/notable from the perspective of science fiction & fantasy as a broad genre

That last one is tricky. There’s no shortage of SFF themes in video games — it’s almost a default. However, the Hugo Award isn’t an award for ‘random book with rockets in it’. There is an expectation of some degree of advancing the genre in some way. At the same time, the award in other category isn’t used as an award to reward just the most innovative or the most boundary pushing work in that category. Novelty is just one of numerous dimensions against which we should judge works but it is a relevant one.

I’d like to see the winner of this category be a game that has some popular and critical acclaim but also be something notably a bit different. If the category is to work, then “Hugo winning game” should be a notable fact about a game.

As I have said before, I suspect the game Hades is the likely front runner, even though it has some eligibility issues. I have played it but I’ll save a review for later in the year (assuming it is a finalist).

However, the game I will nominate in this category isn’t Hades but a game set in a quite different afterlife: Spiritfarer. The two games couldn’t be more different and yet both borrow Charon the Ferryman and Hades as characters from Greek mythology and both use (different) genres of game play to lead you to interact with a series of characters from whom you learn about their lives (and deaths) and your own characters back story. Spiritfarer has fewer murderous, laser firing crystal things though.

The genre of gameplay is resource management and exploration. You have a ship with a small number of passengers and you sail between islands collecting resources and improving your ship. It’s all presented as 2D animation largely moving horizontally.

However, the world and characters are notably unusual. You play Stella, who (along with her cat Daffodil) has been recruited to take over from Charon as the person who ferries souls to their final afterlife. The world you sail around is a kind of staging place where people are still holding on to their material lives and issues or just generally getting on with stuff (including some industrial dispute in which you intervene).

Your broader task is to find particular souls (many of whom you know from your previous life) who come to live on your increasingly chaotic ship. You build them cabins (stacked up so your ship looks like Howl’s Moving Castle) and cook them food and run errands for them. You also listen and help each one work through things. Eventually, you take them when they are ready to the Everdoor where they transcend into constellations.

That may sound very maudlin and there is a lot of sadness within the game but it is more wistful then depressing. Having said that, there are certainly some departures that hit harder than others (which I won’t spell out because spoilers). There are also some guests on-board your ship who are just absolute pains but that also adds to the general atmosphere.

For a game with wistful themes and music that feels like the opening music to a Studio Ghibli film, you stay extraordinarily busy. There are plants to water and a variety of meals to cook for guests with distinct food preferences (is my favourite character the one who just likes everything I cook? Yes) and flying jellyfish to catch and lightning to bottle. There is also a lot of jumping around and flying about (on zip lines) as if you are playing a platform game but I really like how very little of this is punishing. There are few penalties and few things you have to do by a particular time (except for one character nearer the end).

I think the character work here is extraordinary. The game uses the physical exploration of the islands as a practical metaphor for exploring people’s lives. The quests they send you on you have to engage with literally to humour some of them (annoyingly so at times e.g. the character who you know doesn’t eat seafood demanding that you make them lobster rolls for dinner). Yet that is part and parcel of the theme of these people finding what they need to let go of, like restless spirits in a ghost story. The faults, demands and in some cases, unlikeability of the characters all adds to the impact of their final times.

Aesthetically, the game uses simple designs to create a feeling of participating in beautiful 2D animated film. There are some lovely visual aspects including a crystal plagued sea dragon and ghostly bugs that dance around your ship but which are only visible when the weird mushroom child character’s pet bug is with you (oh, and you also grew the mushroom kid in your garden after fishing a seed out of the sea because…I don’t know, it made sense at the time).

You also get to pet your cat and hug (except one) your guests.

I played the game on a Nintendo Switch Lite and generally there were few aspects that taxed my slightly limited hand-eye coordination and slower-than-average reaction time. Unfortunately, some of the in game text (especially numbers on recipes and coordinates on the map) where too small to see easily on the screen (at least for my eyes). I don’t think I’ve got sufficient background to do a thorough overview of accessibility issues in video game reviews but I’m also confident that if I’m bumping up against issues then plenty of other people will be, including in places where I didn’t encounter a problem.

Emotionally, I think the game might not be a good choice for some people in some circumstances. Death and emotional burdens are integral to the plot and while the game is genuinely fun, it also plays with the idea of emotional labour and there are times when I needed to take a break because I felt the sense of loss a bit too keenly. I know that many indie and experimental games have explored deeper issues about emotional well being and mental health but Spritifarer manages to pull some deep themes into game is also one where you get to build a wacky house boat and have adventures exploring mines.

I think it deserves a rocket.

Some Hugo Video Game Contenders

In what has become a seasonal tradition the ever useful Lady Business Hugo Sheet of Doom is up and running for 2021 nominations

For anybody interested there are already 40 crowd-sourced suggestions for Best Video Game. I have played two of them: Animal Crossing: New Horizon and (currently playing badly even for a game were you are supposed to keep dying) Hades. If I count games I’ve played earlier versions of or games in the same series then I count nine.

This is as likely a sample of the range of things people might nominate as we might find. There are some big name game companies (Nintendo, Ubisoft), some unconventional choices (a Google doodle Halloween game ) and some more independent games. Scanning over it, feels like a clash between Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form (full of big corporate properties) and Best Short Story (interesting things from creative people with a specific vision).

Even with the vast field boiled down to 40 (currently) crowd sourced suggestions, I’m still not sure how to engage with this.

What is it like to be in a world

Yesterday I was musing at length about a Video Game Hugo. At that point, I think I was still very focused on story and narrative. Looking back at what I wrote yesterday and what I wrote back in 2015, I can see I used two examples of notable games that I have played and which definitely had significant SFF elements which I stated as not being things I think should win a Hugo. The two examples were:

  • Minecraft
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons

So in both cases I picked games with limited narrative elements.

So I thought I should re-think that. I’m not flipping my earlier view but I really want to reconsider it and see if I end up somewhere else.

Video game arguably offer an opportunity to gives a sense of what it is like to be in a setting. Ironically this is not always the case in the sub-genre of games often classed as role-playing games. Many video game RPG are often anything but. You play a game as a character but unlike table-top role-playing games, you aren’t necessarily getting to shape a character. Instead, more typically you are operating the characters actions rather than shaping their personality. There are notable exceptions and more games emphasising interpersonal aspects of games (including romance options) but that’s taking me away from the main point. Stronger narrative elements make it harder to just BE in a setting.

Setting and world building are a major part of what makes SFF a genre. Science fiction stories can adopt many plot approaches that connect with other genres (romance, adventure, mystery, horror, detective) and even borrow from other genres defined by settings (westerns, historical periods). The mutability of setting and the sense of playing “what if” with how the world/universe might be is fundamental to SFF as a genre.

Games with their own strong underlying plot aren’t inimical to this “what if” quality. Portal, to use an example I used in 2015, had a distinct story but also used a game/puzzle mechanic that took the idea of spatial wormholes and showed you what it would be like to magic up a way to use them at will. Certainly a book or a film can have characters do the same but a video game is obliged to have a consistent behaviour for how this departure from reality works and also forces the player to get to grips with what it would be like to be in a world where such a thing was possible.

Given that, I should really consider the non-narrative SFF elements of a game. Doing so would mean that games without narrative elements should be considered potentially strong contenders. I believe that gives me two criteria to consider:

  1. How good is the video game as a SFF narrative?
  2. How well does the video game give the player a sense of what is like to be in a SFF setting?

I think these two criteria work well with two touchstone examples of games I feel would have deserved a Hugo in the past: Portal and Chrono Trigger. Both had interesting narrative elements and both were strong in the second criteria that captures how game play works with aesthetics and world building.

Video Game Hugo

DisCon III have decided to use their discretionary power to include a one-off (for the time being) Best Video Game category for the 2021 Hugo Awards. Extensive coverage here

I wrote a post on the possibility way, way back in 2015 where I was thinking about ways of focusing the award on the narrative qualities and SFF elements. The Hugo Awards aren’t exclusively about stories but that’s the gravitational centre of them.

Continue reading “Video Game Hugo”

Looking at the Hugo Game/Interactive Experience proposal

Ira Alexandre of Lady Business has put together an extraordinarily well researched proposal for a Hugo Award for Games and ‘Interactive Experiences’. There are overview posts at Lady Business Dreamwidth page and at File 770. Accompanying the overview is an extensive Google Docs document with a longer analysis, examples and statistics. It’s not a quick read but it is a well argued piece.

There are some strong arguments for a specific Hugo Award category in this area:

  • Video games and table-top games are a major way people experience science fiction and fantasy
  • Worldcon members in general have a clear interest in games and gaming (no, not every member but games are a clear area of interest)
  • Games do not fit well with other categories. In particular, Best Dramatic Presentation has issues including games and so does Best Related Work even if technically the categories can accommodate them.
  • Games and other interactive media have unique and interesting features for conveying science-fictional/fantasy stories and aesthetics. Games aren’t just a popular medium, they are also an interesting and influential one.

I think all of those arguments are strong ones but they aren’t conclusive ones. I’m more sceptical about arguments I’ve seen around that suggest a Hugo Award for games will bring in more interest to the Hugo Awards but that isn’t a central argument of the proposal.

Weighed against the positives above is the question of how to define a category and whether it is even possible to make relative judgements in this field sufficiently well to nominate and vote. Access to games and playing time are also impediments and further complicating matters is the issue of eligibility. The extended document looks at each of these issues and attempts to address them.

The boldest aspect of the proposal is the category definition. I would have thought a very narrow definition would potentially have more success as a category but instead the proposal has gone for an extremely broad approach. It really is a very clever category definition, covering a broad field succinctly:

“Any work or substantial modification of a work (such as a game or interactive narrative, demonstration, or installation) first released to the public in the previous calendar year in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects in any medium where player/user choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, pacing, play, or experience of the work.”

The definition is narrow in one sense: it focuses on the key element of user interaction with the work. That creates a simple test for whether a work is eligible or not: does user have any control over the work (beyond what somebody reading a book already has). At the same time it covers a huge field including chose-your-own-adventure books, table top RPGs, interactive stories, mainstream video games and even theme park experiences.

Is that too big of a field? Maybe but it is less all encompassing than Best Related Work. In reality, if the category is workable over time certain things will come to dominate what actually makes it as finalists and winners. What those things are may change over time but a more narrow effective definition will come into play.

Initially though, this will be hard category to vote in. The extended proposal acknowledges some aspects of that, raising directly the issue of accessing the materials:

“A concern with any new category is whether it is reasonably accessible for nominees, in terms of both cost of the materials/works and in terms of wide availability of a sufficient number of works to fill out a longlist.. The biggest AAA games are notoriously expensive, and there is a proliferation of gaming platforms that are also substantial investments. “

As the document notes, there are ways of getting the feel for games without playing the whole thing including You Tube videos of game play and other media. Non-video games though can also be both expensive and hard to access. Even if you have a regular bunch of friends with whom you play table top games, it’s still a bigger challenge to try out a game than it is to try out a book or see a movie.

Being technically possible to access a work in some way and actually doing so is an issue. I think it is the basic flaw in Best Series as a category — the Hugo Packet has often given great access to a series but I’ve just not had the time to read that much without giving up something else.

I think accessibility to the works remains one of the biggest obstacles to this category working effectively, although the proposal makes substantial efforts to address this.

My other concern is the multiple vectors against which we’d need to judge works in this category. The proposal gives numerous examples of other game awards but I’m struck by the many ways game awards split their own categories.

Consider also the many ways we can experience science-fictional/fantastic elements in media:

  • In the narrative
  • In the world building
  • In the visual aesthetics

Those aren’t orthogonal to each other and all three already apply to Graphic Story, and Best Dramatic Presentation. If we count book covers as part of the experience of reading then all three play a part in the basic text categories as well. So, if we already cope with these disparate dimensions why would games be any more of a challenge?

Looking at just video games for a moment, part of what make this medium interesting is its capacity to extend outwards in any one of these. The added holistic dimension of what we can call ‘game play’ mean we don’t have the same kinds of trade-offs. For a film, good cinematography can only get you so far if your plot is weak but a video game can eschew narrative altogether and be wonderful. I’ve wasted months (possibly years) of my life in Minecraft worlds that have no narrative other than me compulsively building canals. The background plot to most of the Zelda games is a mediocre fantasy story about a princess, a demon and a young hero but I adore those games and the visual, puzzle world they offer.

Yes, in Best Novel as readers we might have works that trade-off the quality of the prose against the pull of the plot. We can forgive (or even love) a been-done-before setting if the characters are engaging and the plot does something new with the material. Any ranking of creative content is a trade off of multiple qualities. Yet, I think games might take this to a point of incommensurability. Of course, we won’t know that unless we try it.

I don’t have a good concluding paragraph. I’m sceptical about games as a category but Ira Alexandre has made a very good argument and I’m less sceptical than I was.

More on that video game sexism study

In a post entitled An insight into video game sexism? I’m in two minds… I looked at a PLOS One study into how people playing HALO online reacted verbally to players they considered female. The paper recieved a lot of coverage because of its takeaway claim that the more verbally abusive players were losers.

While I liked the experimental design, I did have some doubts about the paper – particulalry the way it was framed in terms of an evolutionary model that didn’t seem that closely related to the study.

Rebecca Watson of Skepchic has a video which discusses that and other issues with the study:

There is a transcript here also:

An insight into video game sexism? I’m in two minds…

A graph - go and read the paper.
A graph – go and read the paper.

There is an interesting paper (with an odd flaw) on sexism in online video games. It was published the other day on PLOS ONE and can be read in full here: Hoorah for open access! [You can even download their data and their R scripts]

Two researchers (Kasumovic from UNSW in Sydney and Kuznekoff from Miami University Middletown in Miami) used Xbox Live to play Halo 3 and recorded audio and video of their team games. They also created three special accounts: one nominated as male, one nominated as female and one nominated as a control. The control account was used to play the game without any verbal input. The other two accounts used a set of pre-recorded audio phrase which were identical between the two accounts but one recorded with a male voice and the other with a female voice.

These prerecorded phrases were identical in the male and female condition, harmless in nature, and designed to be inoffensive. Phrases included: ‘I like this map’, ‘nice shot there’, ‘I had fun playing that game’, ‘I think I just saw a couple of them heading this way’, and ‘that was a good game everyone’.

Having collected audio files from a bunch of games they then transcribed the comments of the other (real) players assigned to them by the game and then they coded those transcripts to identify sexism in the comments. In addition that they had a range of performance values for each of the players (number of kills etc).

Continue reading “An insight into video game sexism? I’m in two minds…”

Fighting and not fighting

There is an interesting article here:

It discusses the reliance of fighting in video games – that is the extent to which the standard mechanic in games is to resolve conflict with a fight. To use the words of the article:

In video games, violence—that is, being good at enacting violence more effectively than, say, NPCs or other players—is a often key mechanic. Violence is often seen as the most effective method for engaging players. It sets the stakes and gives players a sense of momentum and urgency by giving them a clear, tangible, immediate goal: hurt the thing that’s hurting you. The consequences of losing are telegraphed to you by your very real instincts of fight-or-flight rather than by the digitized, fictional language of the game.

Now,I can see an obvious reaction to this post as an attempt to ‘neuter’ the excitement of games  – particularly as the arument is posed in terms of the fragility of masculinity. However, the issue here is not that games should never depict violence or that they should be denuded of threat or action but that fighting is lazy and limiting when it is used as a core around which a game is built. Portal & Portal 2 are obvious but rare examples of games (outside of casual gaming), which were built up around a premise that was not about fighting something or someone at each step. Yes there was conflict, threat, action and violence but at each step the player was engaged with the physics of their environment as the primary and repeated challenge.

Anyway – read the article if you haven’t already.

A Hugo for games?

This is an aside on to the rambling series on what purpose the Hugo Awards may have and an elevated comment from File 770.

Among the new ways that SF/F is experienced by people as a form of entertainment are video games. Calling it ‘new’ may seem absurd when video games aren’t a lot younger than the Hugo Awards themselves. Video games were children of the seventies and while there is much talk of the Millennial generation being digital natives, the aging legion of affected apathy that is Generation X grew up with video games.

The difference now is that video games have established themselves as a substantial form of entertainment with their own fandoms, conventions, cosplay and ties to other media. People relate to a science fiction game franchises like Halo in the same way they do with film franchises like Star Wars. Additionally games are an important competitor for people’s time and money, while also being an important co-promoter of genre fiction. Games inspire their own tie-in novels, animations and films and while the movie tie-in game may be a genre of disappointment, it demonstrates how multiple forms of media work together.

Having said that I don’t see much point in awarding a Hugo for a game in general. Central to a good video game is effective game play and there are multiple criteria against which a game can be judged that are best dealt with by game specific awards. Some games, for example Minecraft, are so open that it is hard to judge them for their narrative or fictional qualities. Minecraft deserves many, many awards but I don’t think it deserves a Hugo.

Other games though arguably do. Portal was a brilliantly innovative game that took some of the conventions of a first-person shooter style game and turned them into a brilliant puzzle. However the puzzles have existed in many forms (as have games, as have role-playing games) without video games. The Hugo Awards have not been used to reward the quality of puzzles.

Yet Portal (and more so Portal 2) was not just a clever set of puzzles. It had a back story (which was complex and only partly revealed). It had a plot. Characters developed over time (Glados over both games and Wheatley in Portal 2). There was dialog, cut scenes, and foreshadowing, and side plots and important SF themes around identity, surveillance, psychological experimentation and artificial intelligence. These elements are all things that we find in the novel category, the shorter fiction categories and the best dramatic presentation categories.

So what a game should be awarded a Hugo for is those same elements we would expect to see in other fictional works: effective world building, plot, characters, science fiction/fantasy themes effectively explored. Yes, the game should be well executed but the quality of game play shouldn’t be as big a consideration (it isn’t going to be a non-consideration because people will clearly nominate games they like playing if there were a game category). As with the other categories one of more of those elements may be more dominant.

So a video game category would be for the purpose of judging a game as a work of SF/F. Can that be done without playing the game? A nominated game could provide the following (assuming they wanted to):

  1.  A synopsis of the setting and story background of the game. For something like Dragon Age games that is fairly substantial. The Witcher can point at the books it is related too.
  2. A description of some of the characters that are central to the game. Sometimes the player’s character is a cypher or what the players makes of it but not always.
  3. A somewhat description of the plot(s) of the game (will contain spoilers)
  4. Video clips of the game play, key cut scenes, dialog.
  5. A description of how the player is involved with the above

Assuming that other aspects of quality have been handled by the nomination process (i.e. people wouldn’t have nominated it if it was genuinely awful to play) then people who haven’t played the game or people who don’t play the kinds of games that would get nominated.
Of course a non-player could find those things on the ‘net anyway but I think people might feel a bit fraudulent voting for a game they haven’t played. Providing something like the above would make it overt that the vote was about the aspects of the game are the SF/F qualities.