Monday, August 23, 2010

Stay Safe. Stay In.

I'm usually pretty skeptical when it comes to games for change. While I absolutely believe in the intent and concept, the majority of the actual games tend to be crude, sermonizing, awkward and bolted to even poorer (and less meaningful) gameplay. The Curfew proves that not all games for change must suffer this fate.

The Curfew was written by Rock, Paper, Shotgun's (among many other things) Kieron Gillen and developed by littleloud. It was sponsored by BBC Channel 4 (who also sponsored Zombie Cow's Privates) and while fully playable, is still technically in beta. I played in a single sitting of a little over two hours, but the game offers save files that persist as long as you use the same computer to access the game. It's still technically in beta, but seems quite stable. The only bug I encountered was fixed by a page refresh. Apparently a stand-alone download version is coming in the next month or two as well. The game itself consists of filmed live actors, similar to FMV adventure games like Ripper (take a look at that cast by the way, wow) that were vogue in the late 90s. Fortunately, The Curfew is less corny than most of those old FMV games were.

Set in an Orwellian 2027 Great Britain, the eponymous nationwide 21:00 curfew was enacted by the right-wing Shepard party that took power after a thwarted suitcase nuke attempt on London brought public demand for safety to a fever-pitch (all this is better summarized in this official YouTube video). In addition to the curfew, civil liberties have all but vanished. Citizenship is earned by gathering "citizenship points" which are awarded for things like checking in for curfew early, informing the police of suspicious activity, etc.

You, the protagonist, are a dissident who has come into possession of some extremely damaging information about the Shepard party. But you're out after curfew and the police are closing in. You end up in a safehouse (a sort of post-Curfew hostel for those that can't make it home in time) with four other people. You need to pass off the information to one of them before the police arrive, but you have to earn their trust first and determine if you can trust them. And the level of trust you have with this person entirely shapes the outcome of the game.

The core of the game is having conversations with the four different characters. It alternates between playing through as each of them in a series of flashbacks, telling how they came to the safehouse, to a question phase where you try and earn their trust by asking them questions about their experiences. Appropriate questions earn you some measure of trust, inappropriate ones diminish that trust. But it's determining which questions are appropriate is the really interesting part.

To determine which questions will gain the character's trust, not only do you have to pay attention to what goes on in the flashbacks, but you also have to infer the character's outlook and personality. It's tricky at times, but doesn't feel unfair (I repeatedly bombed my interactions with one character, but maybe I just couldn't get a good read on her). It's a really cool mechanic that hasn't been explored in depth much outside of Facade. The Curfew is obviously more structured, but I still really like this aspect of the game and it seems there's a potential richness here that I'd love to see explored further.

All four of the character's stories overlap in a similar style to Pulp Fiction/Go, primarily through their interactions with a black marketeer dressed like a Victorian pimp and is accurately described by one of the characters as a "Fagin wanna-be." Their stories are all good, as is the writing in general. The satire is handled well without it being too ham-fisted. It's obviously hyperbolic, but given the near-Big Brother state the UK finds itself it today, it's less far off than we should be comfortable with. Still, The Curfew isn't entirely uptight. One character is trying to purchase an ultra-violent video game (government sanctioned games totally suck and non-sanctioned games are illegal to purchase) in a fashion traditionally reserved for hard narcotics. And an appearance by Gillen himself in one character's flashback is hard not to chuckle at.

If the game has any shortcomings it's that everything that is not central to the core of the game (conversing with the other characters) isn't particularly strong. Too often it falls into the ol' adventure game quagmire of "pixel hunt for the hotspot and then click it to keep playing." I found this to be particularly common in Aisha's story. I must have been stuck on the first screen for a good four or five minutes. At one point, you have 90 seconds to pixel hunt a specific object in a cluttered room, but I suspect it might not have been there at all. The time ran out for me and the story continued, but it was a pretty frustrating moment, especially given the difficulties I'd had earlier.

There are also a few simple minigames that occur in all four of the stories. None of them are particularly good, although I did find the one that involved scrubbing windows/floors/walls to actually feel tedious (in a good, intentional way). I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of these was, beyond perhaps some fear The Curfew didn't have enough "game" in it. They're not so offensive they'll make you want to stop playing, but if they disappeared, I don't think the game would be lessened for it either.

As far as games with an obvious social message go, The Curfew is one of, if not the best, I've ever played. It's sharp and poignant without ever descending into becoming preachy or dogmatic. And the core conversation/trust system that makes up the heart of the game is interesting, especially when it comes to imagining how it could be expanded and refined. But having a game about conversations where the conversations aren't just hard gates, but rather exercises in empathy and considering another's outlook is seriously cool. It's a little embarrassing a free browser-based game has more depth in its conversation system that almost any other multi-million dollar game. The game's message is commendable and the mechanics definitely provide much food for thought. I highly recommend giving it a go, plus it demonstrates a browser-based game for change can actually be quite compelling.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Playing The Curfew made me realise that there are 2 axes of critique for games where I previously saw only 1. The Curfew is unremarkable in its execution of form - branching FMV is something that we've been over in the 90s. The content is well done, though - they should be congratulated for that.

August 23, 2010 at 11:45 AM  
Blogger Jason T said...

Will definitely have to check this out. I'm especially interested in dialog as gameplay. Also, while it got pretty roundly slammed, I'd recommend Alpha Protocol as another game that kind of involves reading NPCs' reactions in dialog as an important aspect of gameplay. (No moral mission there, though, unless "spies are sneaky and awesome" is a valid political statement.)

August 23, 2010 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger Michel said...

Was it Aisha you had trouble with? She was the only one I couldn't earn the trust of, but that challenge made the conversations with her more interesting.

I'm curious about all the alternate endings. A couple of the characters I wouldn't choose just because of the circumstances of the story (wanted notice flashing on TV? Probably willing to do anything to keep parents from being deported? Right...stay away), but I assume it all comes down that hidden trust variable. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

August 24, 2010 at 12:04 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alex I wouldn't sell the dialog system short either. Unlike most adventure-style games, the dialog mechanics in The Curfew aren't hard gates with only valid solution.

@Jason Yeah, several friends have said the same. I'll have to try to check it out. Alpha Protocol sounded like a bunch of good ideas with some weak core gameplay that just couldn't be made to fit together. Hopefully some of that conversation coolness made its way into Fallout: New Vegas too.

@Michel Yup, it was Aisha. And I was wondering the same thing too. I opted for Lucas going along basically that same train of thought.

I imagine you're right in that the trust tally is the only thing that makes a difference. But some of possible depth I could see in exploring a mechanic like this would fall out of having to reason about the motivations of others. That combined with empathy as challenge could be real interesting.

August 24, 2010 at 7:08 AM  
Blogger Michel said...

Absolutely. Even if the trust is all that matters, the way I played the game and choices I made were influenced by other narrative factors. It definitely succeeded in what it was trying to do, and is a more practical (fun) experiment than Facade.

August 24, 2010 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Michel Yeah, that's a good point. Facade is ambitious, but by trying to do so much, when it goes off the rails, it really goes off the rails. You can't really break The Curfew.

August 24, 2010 at 4:03 PM  

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