[Note: This is a reply to a letter written by Dylan Holmes over at his blog, as part of a game blogging series we are doing monthly. This month, we are discussing 1979 Revolution: Black Friday – a game about Iran in 1979. In addition, his response to this letter can be found here, and I finish the letter series here. All the spoilers.]
I will begin by agreeing with most of your thoughts. I agree that the cinematic aspects of this game are of far higher quality than the ludic aspects. More specifically, yes, there were a lot of mouse movements that were annoying as all get out. I agree that the information is presented in a compelling way, the world building is pretty good in that regard. I get the impression that maybe the group of people who designed this game are not particularly interested in being a games studio — when I went to the website to link to it above (in the note), I saw that they partnered with a studio that may have done a lot of the non-cinematic parts. Lastly, I am also still glad that I played the game. I think what this game succeeds at, possibly against pretty decent odds, is that it is about something historical for the sake of making us aware about something historical and yet it is not edutainment.
But by far my biggest issue is that the choices often don’t affect the outcome of the game. I ended up playing this game in fits and starts, and therefore I noticed:
1) It didn’t appear to make a difference whether I got the documents out during the first scene or not.
2) If I chose to save Ali instead of Hossein, Ali died anyway, which lends the impression that there is a right answer.
I don’t know if there were other examples, but there might have been.
The choice to copy the Walking Dead game, or more specifically to introduce “so and so will remember that” is probably better for people who don’t usually play games and who need instructions on how to understand what is happening if they haven’t had an experience interacting with a narrative in that way before. This might be more defendable in a case like this one, where the target audience might not be gamers (which is not true of The Walking Dead game or Dreamfall Chapters). But this of course gets back to the question we were talking about earlier this week — what the role of authorship is in games. Notably, we say “game designer” and not “game author,” which does seem to denote a different relationship between the creator and the content. There seems to be something sort of gloating about the text on the screen, as if the designer is saying “Ah, so that’s what you’ve chosen, well let me tell you what that means.” Most gamers do not want to be reminded so blatantly that their agency is usually limited by the programming, and either way, it does sort of bring the player out of the world and into the meta over and over. At the end of the day, I am somewhat forgiving because I think the flaws of this game are a result of naiveté and lack of experience.
As for the story, I would have preferred a straight “break the story” procedural. It is a continuous problem in media that they underestimate the understated. The trouble with blatant violence is that it is the least complex way to deal with power dynamics in a narrative, and therefore it ends up feeling a little cheap. But the world building was so good in this game that the ham handed (as you put it) use of violence didn’t take away too much from the immersion for me.