Monthly Archives: January 2012

One and One Story by Mattia Traverso

Play here                                                                                                              Dev’s site

“Love is one soul in two bodies.” That quote from Aristotle is how One and One Story introduces itself. Whereas I recommended  the brilliant Cart Life last week for its exhausting depth and demanding, unapologetic realism, I would implore you to give One and One Story a look for its elegant simplicity. One and One Story is a game that tells a love story. It takes platforming and turns it into a sort of poetic song and dance between two lovers, as the game mechanics reinforce the triumphs and difficulties that emerge from any serious relationship. There’s nothing in the platforming itself that hasn’t been done before, but the tryst between gameplay and narrative in this gem is nearly perfect. Short, narrated lines act as brief intermissions, not unlike the way cutscenes are used in other games on a larger scale, and the platforming reinforces the story as you progress.

A less refined attempt at portraying serious emotional attachment with a few lines of writing and a bit of jumping around would have been cliché-ridden and cringe-worthy, but nothing about this title feels forced. In the tutorial, the narrator doesn’t issue commands. The controls are explained in the first person–“And there I was, moving thanks to the arrow keys”–seamlessly weaved into the poetic meter of the game’s story. “There she was. I used Z or C to think of her.” Even the loading screen is presented in this fashion: “And so the game was loading. Again.” The language probably sounds a bit silly with me rattling it off like this, but I found it charmingly self-aware, yet earnest and sincere—“There she was. I used Z or C to think of her.” When you press this key, you are thinking of her. You are not “switching control from one virtual person to another.” Rather, you are thinking about the person you fell in love with. I thought this a fantastic example of how some simple changes in the diction typical of games writing can significantly change the implications of the gameplay.

It’s as if the tutorial is aware of what it has to do (teach you to play the game) and is making a bit of a joke about it before it sits you down and tells you this really genuine love story. The playful language is set against the backdrop of a melody that is a gorgeous, dark shade of melancholy. The tutorial, which only takes up a few seconds of your time, not only teaches you how to operate the game, but it succeeds where many tutorials fail miserably. It sets the tone. So many tutorials simply front-load a bunch of information on you and say which buttons to press without considering how the information is being presented. This can ruin those precious first moments in a game when you are experiencing a new world, full of untapped potential. The tutorial in One and One Story gets it right, as it gives you a sort of emotional context for what you’re doing with the gameplay.

The game is not subtle in its mechanical metaphors, but it doesn’t feel like it’s beating you over the head with them either. Suffice it to say, there are two characters on the screen and your job is to bring them together. Sometimes you control both of characters, and sometimes you don’t, and the clever part lies in the varying amount of control given to the player. I did threaten to break the tone sometimes, like when I accidentally (or was it?) pushed a heavy block off a ledge to land right on top of my unfortunate ladyfriend. But even the death sequence, which consists simply of an audible “gasp” and a quick restart, maintains the sincerity of the tone. In addition, shifts in the wonderful color palate invoke the changing of seasons and emphasize transitions in the relationship. The game is neither lengthy nor difficult. The whole experience sort of sweeps over you like a soft breeze, and then it’s over, and you wish it wasn’t. But then you think, if that breeze was any longer I might not have appreciated it properly, and then you start looking forward to the next breeze. Nobody really thinks this much about breezes. I should go outside.

One and One Story is a Student Showcase Finalist at the 2012 Independent Games Festival. I really had trouble deciding on a game to write about this week. It was a toss-up between this one, Nitronic Rush (a Student Showcase honorable mention at IGF from Digipen Institute of Technology), or Diego Garcia’s delightful conversation sim, FlirtOff. All of these titles engage in a way that I found fresh and unexpected, and all of them are worth your time.

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Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier

(Edit: I revisited this game in the interest of taking a more careful look at what’s important about it.)

First, watch this. More importantly, listen.


Awesome, right?

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you that I just spent the afternoon of my precious day off from the Starbucks where I work to play a retail/life simulator that meticulously recreates the process of pulling an espresso shot. What the hell is wrong with me? The fact that I’m subjecting myself to this may speak to Cart Life’s genius, but then again, maybe it just shows how skewed my perception of “fun” is. I’ve actually had a pipe dream of designing a game based on the barista/café experience for a couple of years now, but the scope of Cart Life is so much wider than anything I had imagined.

There is simply too much to be said about this game to review it properly. It is bleak, subtle, unassuming, somewhat grating, and at times frustrating all at once. But it somehow ludicrously manages to be fun as well. Have I mentioned that it probably makes the most poignant statement about real world, day-to-day existence I’ve ever seen in a game? The free version offers two playable characters, which I can already tell translates to hours upon hours of play. One of the characters is Andrus Poder, a guy with a cat named Mr. Glembovski, who works at a newspaper stand. The other is Melanie Emberly, who is going through a divorce and trying to get custody of her child, Laura. So far I’ve only played as Melanie, who resolves to start her own business—a modest coffee stand downtown—to prove she is capable of providing financial stability for Laura.

Cart Life really isn’t about coffee shops, but first off I’d like to talk about the game as a café/retail simulator because it’s the most clever I’ve ever seen or heard of and probably the best ever made. The retail experience it presents is riveting and frustrating and brilliant. When you encounter a customer, you can introduce yourself, ask him/her a question, or go straight to the sale. If you’re tired or hungry (you probably will be), then making the sale is the only option you have. But if you’re really tired or hungry, you don’t even have that option. This mechanic in itself speaks VOLUMES about the retail experience.

The game offers a near perfect deconstruction of the physical and mental process of preparing and selling a coffee beverage. When you sell someone a cup of coffee, you enter a step-by-step process, the first of which is a multiple choice question that asks what the customer just ordered (a. bagel, b. babysitter, c. coffee, d. you get the idea). In the next step, you have to type out a sentence displayed on the screen: “THE COFFEE IS DARKLY ROASTED” or “CAFFEINE IS A STIMULANT.” For the last step, you’re asked to calculate in your head the amount of change you owe the customer. The game also takes into account the type of drink the customer ordered. When you sell an americano, you have to set the grind, smooth the grind, tamp the grind, pull the shots, pour the shots into the cup, add the water, put the lid on the cup and hand the cup to the customer, using the arrow keys. This process reoccurs every single time you sell a cup of coffee. In addition, you can’t make cappuccinos or lattes until you’ve remembered to purchase milk from the grocery down the road a piece.

You may be thinking this sounds like the worst idea for a game since pro bass fishing. BUT YOU’RE WRONG. The whole process is pretty frantic and fast-paced. As you go through these (admittedly meticulous, but that’s sort of the point) motions, an 8-bit tune urges you on in the background, a timer runs and a customer patience meter rapidly depletes. If the meter gets low enough, you don’t get a tip. If the customer’s patience depletes completely, you don’t make the sale. At the end of the sale, you are notified if you achieved your best time, which urges you to move just a bit quicker with every sale. As you get used to what’s coming and your actions turn into muscle memory, a sort of rhythmic adrenaline rush emerges from the experience, not unlike the actual feeling you get from working a busy hour at a café.

All that said, Cart Life is really about people. It’s about balancing self-preservation with relationships and emotional stability. I spent my first night as Melanie wandering around in a seedy industrial district, trying to find the hardware shop where my sister, Rebecca, told me I could purchase a coffee stand. When I found the place and tried to go in, I got a notification regarding the store’s hours. I checked the menu to find that it was 2 a.m., and Melanie was starving and bone tired. I hadn’t spent ten minutes playing this game, and I was already failing. Those first few minutes told me three important things about how this world operates:

  1. The game gives you just enough information. The rest you have to figure out on your own.
  2. The clock doesn’t stop ticking, and it moves fast.
  3. This is not the sort of simulation that pats you on the back and makes you feel all warm and capable of conquering the world. It’s the other kind.

I had Melanie walk home because I didn’t want to waste money on a cab. I arrived around 3 a.m., passed out, and briefly wandered a nightmarish dreamscape before I was awoken the next morning by Rebecca with Mel’s sleep meter only about halfway full.

I spent the next few in-game days trying to get Melanie on her feet. I walked her daughter to school and back and asked around town to figure out what to do next. That, in itself, took me almost a full day. I purchased a permit from the courthouse to set up shop in the downtown area. Then, I bought cups, napkins, a coffeemaker and an espresso machine at the “Superstore.” By then, I didn’t have enough money left for the stand itself, so I had to pawn off Mel’s high-end watch and diamond wedding ring (she didn’t need it anymore anyway, right?) just to get started. On some days I spent most of my time simply learning new locations, and I paid for my indulgences in exploration with precious time, as Mel’s custody hearing drew ever closer. An hour or two in, and I hadn’t even made it to the retail simulation part (described above in annoying detail). I had spent all this time just living life, learning people’s names and getting started, and I was completely and utterly engrossed.

In a new, unfamiliar environment with new, unfamiliar people it is downright daunting to complete even the most menial of tasks. Add a stressful situation like the one Melanie is facing to the mix, and the challenge of day-to-day life increases exponentially. This is an aspect of the human experience that Cart Life knocks out of the park. In his extremely positive write-up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Smith poses a really good question, “It all sounds utterly depressing and why the hell would anyone want to play it?”

Hmmmmmmmmmm. There must be something in us that wants to help people. Or perhaps we want to believe that if the downtrodden simply have the drive to help themselves, then they can, if they just keep going. Or maybe it’s strangely comforting to see the toils of modern existence wrapped up in an aesthetically pleasing pixilated package with a killer soundtrack. Regardless, the game draws you in and doesn’t let go. Even when you stop playing, you’ll keep thinking about it. Cart Life is not hopeless. It’s too beautiful to be hopeless. It is unapologetically and, at times, punishingly real.

Edit: I know I wrote about this game because it’s free, but the paid version is only $5 dollars, and it gives you another character to play (which in this game translates to another deep narrative), as well as a digital copy of the excellent soundtrack. If anybody deserves your money, this guy does. 

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