IFComp 2011: Calm

Spoilers follow the break.

We’ve seen games that track the PC’s level of stress before — last year’s Heated, for example — but never with quite such central importance as here. This is a sci-fi story about alien spores that infect people, bind to their cells, and then, if they become too upset, kill them in a matter of minutes. This resulted in a chain reaction where the stress of seeing people die caused more people to die, leading to the collapse of civilization and the near-extermination of the human race.

How did the player character survive? You actually get some choice about that. The introductory dialogue asks you a couple of questions that are effectively a form of character generation. You get three choices of initial situation — you start out either in a crumbling supermarket with a large stock of canned food, or traveling about looking for supplies, or in a research lab looking for a cure — and three choices of how you’ve managed to keep calm through the disaster — drugs, meditation exercises, or sociopathic lack of empathy for the suffering of those around you. I’ve tried two of the resulting nine combinations to some length, and can report that the differences have a fairly large effect on how the game proceeds. You wind up exploring the same ruined town regardless, and talking to the same couple of mentally shattered survivors, but you’ll have different initial obstacles and different goals, depending. There are sources of stress that the lack-of-empathy personality simply doesn’t have to worry about, but he doesn’t have any easy way to let go of stress that he does accumulate, whereas meditation is an infinite source of calm, given enough time.

There even seems to be at least one major choice provided mid-game. It turns out that the spores are actually preserving the lives of those they infect, making you effectively immortal as long as you stay calm. So this gives you a chance to re-evaluate whether curing the infection is a good thing or not, and you apparently have a choice about whether to stop the plague in general or to stop the people who are trying to stop it.

Alas, I haven’t got far enough for such a decision to be meaningful. It’s the sort of game where it’s easy to get stuck. A lot of the puzzles are simulation-driven, rather than requiring singular bits of clever insight, and that means you spend a lot of time fiddling with objects, trying to figure out what’s breakable and what command you need to enter to push a mattress down a stairwell and the like. And given the importance of such details, there are a few dismayingly unclear descriptions — for example, “a gaping hole to the west” in one room is in the wall, and therefore a passageway, and not, as I had thought at first, in the floor, and therefore an obstacle.

Also unclear at first is your stress level. Your mood is described in the status bar, but is “Euphoric” better or worse than “Elated”? For that matter, is either one actually good? Elation isn’t exactly calm, so I was worried at the beginning that my character was getting too excited, that being in too good a mood would be as likely to kill him as being in too bad a mood. It turns out not to work that way, but it took me too long to figure this out.

So, this is a game with a lot of potential, especially in its variability, but it could use some more polish. I think I’m going to wait for a post-Comp release before trying it again.

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