IFComp 2016: Sigil Reader (Field)

Spoilers follow the break.

What we have here is an amnesia story, but only halfway. You can remember who you are and what your job is: a Sigil Reader, a sort of magical specialist cop in a world where this is apparently a normal thing to be. (A line early on about how you’re the “[o]nly one in the Station who knew about sigils” had me thinking at first that the very existence of sigils is a secret, but I think it really just means you’re the house expert.) But you can’t remember your immediate situation. You start off in your police station, alone, with a general sense of unplaceable wrongness, and have to recover your past by examining objects.

That sounds simple enough, but the implementation of this idea is weird. Progress in the game is blatantly gated on examining items, but in ways that don’t make a lot of sense, either logically or narratively. Sometimes things will change in a room, or a key or other essential item will just appear in your inventory, as a result of looking at something completely unrelated. One of the critical-path examinables is a photo of a coworker and his dog, which isn’t even connected to the mystery of what happened to you. It’s just showing you something about the player character’s life before, filling in a gap that you didn’t know was a gap.

There are a lot of objects like that: things that just provide flavor about the station. Homemade pickles in the office lounge, a rabbit skull on the director’s desk. I don’t know how many of them are crit-path. Gating objects seem to come in groups sometimes, such that you don’t get a tangible effect from examining just one thing, which obscures any pattern there may be to it. This has a strange effect: playing through the game a second time was actually harder for me than the first time. On my first pass, I was examining everything as a matter of course, just in case it was important. On going back to confirm some details for this blog post, I ignored things that I thought were unimportant and consequently got stuck.

In the end, all the strangeness is explained with a “you were dead all along” twist. This doesn’t come out of nowhere; in addition to the sense of unreality created by the changing environment, there are a few more specific hints, like a sense of weightlessness, and a stain on your shirt. So I suppose the emphasis on mundane details was meant as a meditation on mortality — the author’s blurb describes the piece as “A short parser game about exploration, loss and restoration”. But it’s odd how this is mixed up with a story about magic cops and a serial killer. I just feel like the author had a bunch of ideas here that didn’t quite mesh. I discovered on replay that your name is randomized, and with it, your apparent ethnicity: you might be Chua Jin Hong in one session, Gregory Faizal Bin Mohammed in the next. I don’t know what this was supposed to add to the story, because it doesn’t affect anything else about the character. Maybe that’s the point. If so, it’s a point that doesn’t have much to do with anything else in the game.

The business about sigils in particular is strangely tangential to the story we’re told. And I mean “tangential” in a very precise sense: it touches the plot at exactly one point, as an explanation for how the killer managed to break free and wreak havoc (although it’s not very specific about how that works). Apart from that, you can find a few protection sigils and suchlike in the environment, but you can’t do anything with them and never learn anything from them. There’s an optional puzzle to assemble a device that lets you find hidden sigils, but as far as I could tell, they’re just as pointless as the unhidden ones. If sigils are a prominent enough part of the author’s vision of this world to merit a mention in the title, I feel like they should be more relevant.

No Comments

Leave a reply