IFComp 2019: Rio Alto: Forgotten Memories

One of my favorite things: a UI experiment! It’s a little like Texture and a little like Robin Johnson’s games. The screen is divided into two panels. The left panel shows the story text and the room illustrations. The right panel contains all the interactive elements: inventory, environmental objects (including characters), locations you can go to, even an inventory of “thoughts”, which you can use as conversation topics or just reflect on. All these things are represented as card-like icons, and all actions are performed by dragging one card onto another. It takes a while to get used to, especially for actions that feel like they should take only one card, like examining an object or moving to a location. These are performed by dragging the relevant card onto the card representing Luis, the player character.

Luis is a recent arrival at a small village in post-war Spain, where he’s started suffering from recurring nightmares and strange feelings of elation and nausea. Even though there’s an entire tabbed panel for inventory, I spent a good long time without any physical inventory items at all — most of the story is instead spent asking the locals about your Thoughts, investigating the village’s mysteries: suspicious deaths, possible witchcraft, darkness in stark contrast to the sunny illustrations. There’s one character that I’m pretty sure is a hallucination, a reflection of a repressed guilt that I never fully plumbed. I’ve seen an ending — a bad one, where you wind up in prison — but haven’t yet brought the story to a satisfactory conclusion that answers all the questions.

That’s because there’s a lot of guesswork involved. The physical puzzles are pretty obvious, but when it comes to conversation, the interface produces an element of combinatorial explosion, and only sometimes gives you the guidance you need. Sometimes it emphasizes particular cards by slowly pulsing them (a nicely subtle effect), but a card is only half of an action. Sometimes there are multiple approaches to advancing the story — for example, you can break into an abandoned house by force or find out who has the key and get him to trust you. That helps, but it doesn’t help all the time.

So, those problems might be inherent to the format, or they might be avoidable in a completely different game, with different content. There are also some minor noticeable problems that could have been fixed here without changing anything fundamental. It’s fairly easy to make the game logic inconsistent by doing things more than once, or by triggering both sides of a plot branch. The game seems to have been translated from Spanish, and while the translation is generally good, there are occasional bits of awkward or unnatural English, possibly the result of translating Spanish idioms too directly. The UI could definitely be improved. The tabbed interface highlights the selected tab with a pink nimbus, but doesn’t put it in front of the other tabs. Some of the cards have a dark background that makes the text hard to read. Most of the cards are taller than they are wide, while the text on them is wider than it is tall, meaning there’s a lot of wasted space and the text still gets cut off at the beginning and end sometimes. There are some flashy blur and ripple effects that seem out-of-place while the basics are this underdeveloped.

Still, this is a Worthy Experiment, and probably worth the effort of cleaning it up a bit. I also hope to see the experiment carried on further in other games.

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