IFComp 2019: Black Sheep

Black Sheep is a sci-fi mystery story that bills itself as cyberpunk, but it’s closer to the Blade Runner end of the subgenre than the more typical Neuromancer end — “cyber” not as in cyberspace, but cybernetics. Robots are an established part of society, cryogenics figure large in the plot, and the main source of menace is a powerful singularitarian organization, Light of the Future, that may not be above appeasing Roko’s basilisk by means of human sacrifice. The player character has a personal connection to this cult: her father was one of its higher-ups, back when it was less cultish. The dad dies shortly before the story begins, and the investigation you conduct is essentially an investigation into his secrets.

It’s built in Twine, but it’s more puzzle-based than choice-based. It has some general mechanisms to provide combinatorial complexity of action: an inventory and a notebook. Most of the time, apart from dialogue and transition sequences, the text is location-based, giving you a room description with links on things or people you can interact with. When you go into your inventory, you can select an item to use in these interactions, much like in a point-and-click graphic adventure. And it works about as well as it usually does in a graphic adventure, which is to say, a lot of combinations yield a generic failure message. It does help to promote a sense of player intentionality often missing in choice-based works, but at the same time, I did find myself cycling through all the available combinations when stuck.

One thing I thought was peculiar: Although the room text doesn’t change when you select an inventory item, the set of words you can interact with usually does. For example, there’s a bar scene containing a “lone drunk”. There’s no link on those words when you enter the room, so you can’t click on him to examine him or initiate a conversation with him, but you can show him stuff, such as a picture of your missing sister.

The notebook contains important information, which can be combined in pairs to form deductions, much like in Discworld Noir or the Blackwell series. And it’s mostly an exercise in frustration. I was about ten minutes away from the end of the Comp’s two-hour judging limit before I managed to produce my first successful deduction, and even then, it was just a hint for a puzzle I had already solved. It mainly gets used at the very end, when you have to use it to indicate some crucial deductions for the final confrontation. Note the implication there: the deduction interface is not basically a way for the game to provide information to the player, but for the player to provide information to the game — specifically, to let it know what you’ve figured out.

Mind you, it’s possible that I would have had more success with deductions if I had solved some things in a different order. It’s clear that the story is somewhat flexible, and provides multiple ways to get at crucial clues. Nonetheless, as I’ve indicated, it is quite possible to get stuck.

There’s an ostensible limit of two days of game time (which advances with every major change of location) before the cultists come for you, but it’s basically fake. The game in fact proceeds after this or any other death with a link reading “Reset Memory” that resets the time limit with no loss of progress, information, or inventory. It’s a big hint to the story’s final secret, as are the death sequences themselves. Between the pretense of a time limit and the way that the first chapter of the game is all traditional choice-based Twine, it’s easy to get a false first impression of what the game is like and how it plays. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. This is one of the few games this Comp that I wound up playing to conclusion after the two-hour mark.

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