May 12, 2013

Review: Something's In The Air by Ariane Barnes

If you're a regular visitor to this blog you're probably familiar with Ariane's Date Simulator, the game that launched the whole HTML dating game genre (if not you should really give it a look). For the past couple of years the author has been working on a sequel called Something's In The Air. It was released as a public beta in May 2013, with the full version following just over three months later. So how does it measure up?

Probably the first thing that should be said is that SITA (as I'm going to refer to it from now on) isn't an adult game. Instead it's billed as an R-rated romantic comedy. The romance and the comedy are debatable, but the R-rated part isn't. There's nudity and non-explicit sex, but no onscreen penetration and definitely no money shot. In terms of content that's similar to Ariane's Date Simulator, but there's quite a difference in how it's presented. Ariane's Date Simulator managed to be erotic despite the lack of explicit content, mainly because of the context in which the nudity occurred. For example, Ariane and the PC getting naked in a hot tub after playing truth or dare is an erotic situation because Ariane is stripping for the PC and it's happening as a direct result of the player's actions. More importantly, there's the strong implication that it's the prelude to sexual activity between Ariane and the PC. By contrast, although SITA has considerably more nudity than the first game, the context in which it's presented often lacks those elements. More often than not, the PC views the nudity as a bystander or any possibility of sex is explicitly ruled out. The most egregious example is probably the topless volleyball tournament, which takes place at a nude beach. Obviously naked females abound, and the fact that the tournament is sponsored by an adult channel means that there's a lot of girl-girl action for the cameras. However, the PC is completely passive throughout the whole of this very long sequence and the end result is that it feels like gratuitous fan service to titillate the player (although I actually felt nothing).

The majority of the sex scenes consist of an identical head and shoulders shot of the girl bouncing up and down (presumably on top of the PC), accompanied by generic sound effects. The two LARP scenes involving Rachel come the closest to actually being erotic because they get the most build up. However, Rachel then makes it clear that while her costumed alter egos will have sex with the PC the real Rachel is emotionally inaccessible to him, which is hardly a romantic ending. In fact for a game that's billed as a romantic comedy I didn't notice a great deal of romance. After being quite the romantic in her first appearance, Ariane does a 180 and says she's not relationship material. Nothing the PC says or does can change her mind and their attempt at a romantic date is a failure and devolves into just 'hanging out'. The PC does get to have dinner with Rachel in a fancy restaurant but, as already mentioned, she's completely uninterested in pursuing any sort of real relationship with him. That only leaves Paula, who the PC never actually gets to date during the game. None of the female characters give any indication that the PC's happiness is at all important to them, and he accepts his inferior role without demur. In fact, it almost feels as though the game is trying to avoid any actual romance. The release version tries to address these problems by offering the player an epilogue featuring their choice of one of five girls as a reward for finding all twenty-five endings. However, it's hard to take that very seriously when one of those five girls (Wendy) explicitly rejected the PC during the game (and does so in the epilogue as well), and the PC's date with another (Bonnie) was a randomly determined disaster. Those two epilogues are played for laughs, as is the Paula epilogue, which at least means that the comedy is on a firmer footing. The Rachel epilogue is basically a rehash of her two LARP endings, which leaves Ariane's epilogue as the closest thing SITA has to a happy ending.
 

The mechanics and gameplay of the original Ariane game were compelling enough to inspire a large number of imitators (most notably Chaotic, and the team of Tlaero and phreaky). However, for the sequel the author decided to make a visual novel using the Ren'Py, engine. I've previously argued that visual novels have a lot in common with HTML dating games, but the experience of playing SITA really makes me appreciate the differences. In an HTML game when you click on a link you know that the PC is actually doing something. Even if it's the only link available and even if the associated action is waiting, the player is still directing the PC to perform a specific concrete action. That is in stark contrast to a visual novel where the player just clicks anywhere to advance to the next screen and is only occasionally presented with an opportunity to decide what the PC says or does. The result is that the player of a visual novel actually spends most of their time being a reader, and thus there is a greater distance between them and the PC.

This is a problem for SITA because, although it was made in the visual novel format, it still uses many of the dating game tropes established by Ariane's Date Simulator. For example, three out of SITA's four substories follow the traditional pattern of an anonymous PC meeting a girl and going on some kind of date with her. That plot works in a dating game, partly because of the close identification between player and PC, and partly because of the promise of explicit content. In an R-rated visual novel those elements are reduced, so it's much less effective. There is more to the overall plot of SITA than dating, but because the PC is a virtual cipher he's largely irrelevant to that plot, which makes the story less interesting to the player. It would be more accurate to say that SITA's protagonists are Paula, Rachel and Ariane (in about that order of importance), while the PC is more of bystander. Nowhere is this more obvious than in one of the scenes that was added for the release version, where Ariane experiments with Lydia. That could have had some voyeuristic appeal if it wasn't for the fact that at the critical moment the PC is made to leave the room. He then has to wait patiently until Ariane finally emerges, at which point she does no more than hint at what happened, making the PC even less than a bystander.

SITA does try to increase the player's sense of involvement by providing more choices than is typical of visual novels. Unfortunately, far too many of those choices are either purely cosmetic or indistinguishable from each other. All too frequently when I first started playing SITA, I would pick a seemingly innocuous option only to find that it led to an abrupt end to the game. It was enough to get me shouting at the screen in frustration, and I ended up rage-quitting more than once. You won't be able to make informed decisions until you've completed the game several times, and in fact the game forces you to do this by restricting access to the 'real' story until you've worked your way through the substories. It doesn't help that those substories are more concerned with making a particular point than they are with telling an interesting story in which the PC plays an important part. The one plot-critical action that the PC can take is so subtle that a feature had to be added to the release version to explicitly call attention to it.

Unsurprisingly, Ariane make a return in this game, although she now has to share the spotlight with several new characters. Although only an ingame week separates the two games, my first impression was that Ariane had become a different person. I've already mentioned that she's less romantic, but she's also much more aggressive, swearing at the PC for taking a week to call her and going completely ballistic when a girl spills her drink on her. She's also the recipient of some of the most heavy-handed characterisation I've ever seen when an NPC says "I know we only met recently, but I have never seen you this brutally honest before". Just in case the player somehow missed the idea that Ariane gets 'brutally honest' when she's upset, Ariane's next line is "It's my nature, people PISS ME OFF, and I start telling the TRUTH, no matter how BRUTALLY HONEST it gets". At least the game stops short of making her wear a sign that reads "Brutally honest" (you have to check the player notebook for that).

To be fair, once you get further into the game Ariane starts to feel more familiar, and her interactions with the PC actually do a good job of fleshing out her character and adding extra details that are consistent with her first appearance. In fact, overall I found her to be the most likeable of the major characters. It's unfortunate that the personality traits that most conflicted with my (possibly rose-tinted) memories of the first game were among the first things that were presented to me in this game.

The new characters are something of a mixed bag, although they all have the fact that they strain believability in common. There's Rachel, the 'nerdy' girl who turns out to be a supermodel (I have nerdy in quotes because all it seems to be based on is that she's wearing glasses and reading a book when the PC first sees her, even though she's dressed like Lara Croft with a body to match). There's Paula, the youngest professor in eighty years who's magically able to deduce all of the PC's secrets. Then there's Veronica, the casual car thief and budding sociopath, and Bonnie, whose real personality is randomly determined after the PC sleeps with her. And finally, there's the fact that the PC's MMORPG group all turn out to live in the same city as him (not to mention that the two who are hot chicks ingame are also hot chicks in real life). I think that part of the reason why this bothered me is that the characters are realistically depicted, which led me to expect that they would be realistic in terms of personality and background as well. A more cartoony art style might have made the more over the top characters easier to swallow (as it generally does for bishoujo games).

Rachel is probably the pick of the new characters since she gets the most screen time and is therefore the most deeply characterised. By the end of the game I felt that I had a good understanding of her character, although that didn't mean I particularly liked her. In general, she comes across as somewhat aloof and superior, such as when she deconstructs the events of the house party or when she explains the 'man about town' reference to the PC. That's probably unsurprising given the level of success that she's achieved at such a young age. However, it's something that's a feature of her personality no matter which role she's playing, which rather gives the lie to her claim that the 'real' Rachel is untouched by the fame of 'supermodel' Rachel. I did wonder if the player is meant to come to the conclusion that fame has gone to Rachel's head because although at one point she says "All this town has is me" when it comes to celebrities, Ariane can't even remember Rachel's name.

Speaking of Rachel's success, I didn't think her supermodel status was particularly well sold to the player since all it seems to be based on is that she's appeared on the cover of a swimsuit magazine and in an advertising campaign. That's certainly modelling, but there's nothing especially 'super' about it. However, it is a nice touch that those ads appear in the background throughout the game. But if she's not enjoying her modelling career (and the fact that she has to compartmentalise her personality to deal with it suggests that she isn't), why does she pursue it? She seems much more interested in her studies, to the extent that she's somehow Professor Brannigan's special helper despite only being an undergraduate with an undeclared major.

The fact that Rachel spends so much of her time hiding behind various masks does make her an interesting and memorable character (and arguably in serious need of therapy). However, I think that it also undercuts her likeability by making her emotionally inaccessible. There's never a moment where it feels that she likes the PC in more than the most superficial sense. If they become friends it seems pretty one-sided, most egregiously when, moments after bluntly telling the PC that they're not going to have sex, she rubs salt in the wound by asking him (as her new friend) to photograph her naked. If they do have sex she's at pains to make it clear that there's no emotional involvement on her side and that the PC has to play by her rules. Overall, and despite the quality of the characterisation, it just felt as though the author was far more interested in Rachel than I was ever going to be.

Professor Paula Brannigan is perhaps the most likeable of the new characters, although the fact that her interactions with the PC are basically one big exposition dump means
there's no real chemistry between them. The other superficially likeable character is Bonnie. However, her actual personality is randomly determined as an object lesson on the risks of hooking up with a stranger, which reduces her from a person to a cipher. As she's a minor character that's no big deal, but as a general note I don't think that varying a character's personality like that ever really works because the different versions are never going to be separate in the player's mind.

As for the PC… well his MMORPG character is called "Ranger Dude". Could he not come up with something even remotely imaginative? Joking aside, if there was one thing about this game that I could change it would be the PC. I think it was a mistake to use an anonymous protagonist for several reasons. The first is that it encourages the player to think of the PC as being an avatar of the player, which is a recipe for frustration given how little the PC can actually do. Making the PC a detailed character in his own right would have cushioned that blow and given the player the necessary distance to sit back and enjoy the story. That story would have been more enjoyable for the player as well, since a detailed PC could have had a greater role in it. The PC's status as a thoroughly unremarkable 'man about town' also contrasts sharply with the larger than life nature of the new characters. They're extraordinary while he's merely ordinary. Although the PC can help Paula and company achieve the impossible, it's Rachel's contribution that's vital not his. The endings he can achieve on his own are all depressingly mundane. There's nothing the player can do to spark a fairytale romance between Rachel and the PC, for example. Her 'supermodel' status and emotional problems will always get in the way. Likewise, the player can't change Ariane's mind about a relationship. Spirit and Muse is the closest that she and the PC can get, and that's based on what happened in the previous game. They do end up in a relationship in Ariane's epilogue, but that's not because of anything that either the PC or the player does and it contradicts nearly everything she says during the game.

The writing is… okay. I say that a lot about this style of game, which is probably because it's not as easy as it looks to write as little as the format allows and still have it be good. If the writing in this game has a real flaw it's that it has trouble finding the happy medium between saying too much and too little. For example, on the Veronica path the player gets a much longer description of the process of bodypainting than is either necessary or interesting (presumably so there can be more gratuitous shots of Veronica's naked body). Conversely, Paula's claim that the reason she knows so much about the PC is because he posted most of it on the guild forums and she deduced the rest is only one step removed from saying 'a wizard did it' and feels like lazy writing. On top of that, it's clear that the text of the release version didn't receive adequate proof reading as there are a lot of punctuation errors (mainly random capitalisation, rogue commas, and misused apostrophes), along with the odd spelling mistake and a few continuity errors.

You've probably noticed that I've been quite critical of this game so far. Was there anything I actually liked? Well the production values are top-notch. The characters are beautifully rendered as well as visually distinct, and overall the graphics are easily the best I've ever seen in a game of this kind. There are lots of little background details that are easy to overlook, but cumulatively they make the gameworld feel like a real place. Characters that the PC isn't currently involved with will pass through as they go about their own lives. Paula picks up donuts for her LAN party even if the PC isn't a part of it. Heidi pops up at the gym. The Fantasy Fest still takes place even if the PC doesn't attend. That kind of detail goes a long way towards helping the player to immerse themselves in the gameworld, and the use of music and sound effects adds to that. For example, when Veronica's cellphone goes off in the cinema it is a really annoying sound (although it became less annoying in the full release for some reason). Elsewhere the music supplements the writing by helping to set the appropriate mood for each scene.

In general, I think that to be interesting to me a visual novel needs to have either explicit content or an involving story (and preferably both). As an R-rated game, SITA was never going to have explicit content and it would be unfair to complain about that (although plenty of people did). Story tends to be a strength of visual novels and I think that SITA's could have been interesting but the methods used to tell it, although ambitious, weren't wholly effective in the context of a game. The addition of the player notebook to the release version does make the story easier to follow, but there's clearly something wrong if a commentary is required to explain what's happened. The notebook also verges into telling the player what to think in places, such as when it describes Veronica as 'friendly' or the PC's encounter with Ariane and Lydia as a 'threesome'. The bigger problem is that the author is clearly much more interested in the NPCs, leaving the PC to form their audience. That is obviously a barrier to the player becoming involved in the game. While I can respect the artistic choices that went into SITA, the question "Will this involve the player?" never seems to have been at the forefront of the author's mind.

However, although I've seen many of the above criticisms made individually elsewhere, the general reception for SITA has been very positive and it's possible (even likely) that I'm an outlier in my opinions. Overall, I think how much you like this game will depend on how you feel about the level of interaction available to the player. If you're me, then you're likely to be frustrated by the fact that the PC is a bystander for long stretches of the game, and some of the storytelling will seem heavy-handed (did we really need an entire story devoted to how powerless the PC is?). However, if that doesn't bother you then you can sit back and enjoy what is an exceptionally beautiful game.

14 comments:

  1. i actually like this game so far i am having trouble getting the ending with a couple of girls don't know if it's because it's a beta and the endings are not put in yet or because of my own stupidity

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    1. For a beta this game is largely bugfree, but the gameplay is pretty opaque. There's a walkthrough at AIF Sans Mystery if you need help.

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  2. I think it's pretty funny that the game boats 40 endings, as if the choices you make throughout have a profound affect on the direction of the various stories and each ending represents a unique path through the narrative. In truth, most of the "endings" are just game over screens that come out of nowhere.

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  3. ...Not sure if I'd like the game from this review, though I'd argue most of what you say about visual novels vs. HTML games. I DO strongly prefer my adult games with actual romance and attatchment behind the... well, adult stuff, and this doesn't sound like it would deliver on that front. At all.

    Thanks.

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    1. Most of my comments are pretty subjective (and the author certainly feels that SITA is a romance), but one thing that is objective is that SITA isn't an adult game (and was never billed as such). So if you go into it expecting adult content you're going to be disappointed.

      Out of interest, what are your feelings on the comparison between HTML games and visual novels?

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  4. One point in particular I see you picking up on is what I consider "Groundhog Day" gameplay. Remember the scene where Bill Murray has to redo exactly the same evening with Andie McDowell again and again because if he makes one mistake it's all over? That's roughly the experience of making it out of the amusement park with Rachel in tow.

    But then this game isn't even close to the worst offender...and I thought that before I realised you can back-wheel to change your decisions. There are instances in this game in which the right choice reflects some aspect of the dates character - straight from the start with Rachel you know she's not the type who'll take well to "do you come here often?" (who does? well at least in vdateland, some girls will take anything that isn't "show me your tits stranger!"). And it borders on gamey but the moment the "vegetarian" option came up at dinner you know you've got to choose it - who gets a conversation out of "being a meat-eater"? I know it's small and the game gets carried along by lots of little choices like this but it kind of appealed to how I usually think if I'm trying to make a date interested IRL, which is a big thumbs up for a date game.

    Still, a big part of the solution if these little choices are to be made interesting throughout the game is to have some consistency to the characters (while permitting development) so players have a chance to deduce the right answer - and of course, never, ever having "Groundhog Day" choices which are purely luck based. For the date, this comes down to the quality of the writing, and you've made the needed criticisms already. But on the players side, the considerable degree of freedom that people crave is very hard to reconcile with a consistent character. Look at the non-character of "Shepard" in the Mass Effect Series for an example of this. I don't know, but I think a step towards a solution would be to reward the player for being consistent (not seen it in AIF, but FFXIII-2 had a well-intentioned though gimmicky way of doing this - if you were consistent, be it by being ridiculous or sincere, you got a free item). The way I see it working is by having the player have to make big choices about their character and then being made to stick to them. Losers get laughed at when they try to act tough, "players" get laughed at if they try to emote. Obviously adjust for depending on what kind of game it is.

    I had a lot more in my mind to write about the above, but that's enough for now. Of course, it's all completely speculative, I'm completely open to the possibility of being 100% wrong about all the above (except the "Groundhog day" gameplay bit).

    As for HTML vs VN, as somebody who's toyed with the idea of making AIF* I can say the chief advantage of VN for the unpaid voluntary AIF maker is that it is relatively easy to make. Not that HTML or TADS or whatever is particularly hard, more that Ren'Py is extremely simple.** The advantage is not merely the fact that the job is easier done, but there's more freedom for the creator to decide how to use their time. More time can be put into pictures, or into complexity of the game because not so much goes in to making the game playable in the first place. I'd prefer if the makers made HTML games (even if they do get a bit "spot the hyperlink" at times), but an existent, bug-free VN game is a lot better than a buggy HTML game stuck in development hell.


    *Don't get your hopes up for some great new content out of the blue, a) I'm a hopeless fiction writer and couldn't do half the things I tell others they should, b) my plans are for a fetish game anyway and c) I won't complete it.
    **Making the "Art" is easiest of all of course, any idiot can use Daz or Poser, and people have historically had a low standard on just how well an image matched the object of their fantasies.

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    1. "But on the players side, the considerable degree of freedom that people crave is very hard to reconcile with a consistent character."

      I think that some of that craving for freedom (or at least the expectation of it) comes down to having an anonymous PC. If you're playing 'yourself' you expect to have the freedom to do that. If you're playing a particular character, then you expect to have that freedom curtailed somewhat.

      The other problem with giving players the freedom to make the PC whoever they want is that it means that the story can't be about who the PC is. That works for a free-form like Mass Effect or Fallout (although YMMV), but if you're trying to tell a particular story it means that you have to minimise the role that the PC has in it. The result is a game where the player is restricted to comparatively minor choices because otherwise they might screw up the story that the author is trying to tell. For me that was particularly obvious in the "Tower of Ion" substory. Once you take away the handful of puzzles, the PC is basically a bystander. It's also the case in "Magic, Malice, and Mayhem", although that's the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the author to take control away from the player and show that not all dates end well (which is interesting from a storytelling perspective, but bad from a gameplay perspective in my opinion).

      "I think a step towards a solution would be to reward the player for being consistent (not seen it in AIF)"

      Coffee With Keisha had something like this, in that the PC had to consistently pick either the 'nice' or the 'naughty' options. The downside is that that fact wasn't obvious to the player, unless you looked at the code. There were also options at both extremes that were so cheesy that I wouldn't have picked them if I didn't know they provided points, which took me out of the game a little.

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  5. I said I'd written enough and I have, but on a somewhat related note to all the above, but this game probably would have benefited from taking place over more than 24 hours. The maker packs so much complexity into one evening minor choices -have- to have the major repercussions that they do.

    The downside of "date" games (and I'm calling SITA that) that take place over more than one day is the content gets spread too thin. So rather than what you have with SITA, which is everything that could conceivably happen on a date and more crammed into 6 hours by branching things out, you get each event happen linearly with little player interaction - there simply isn't enough variation for any particular date if you have lots of them. SITA does very well on this actually, but once a vdate has used up "strip poker", "truth or dare" and "late night trip to the beach" it really starts to scrape the barrel.

    Also, I said any idiot can use Daz or Poser and that probably came across wrong. There is some unbelievably bad stuff made using Poser that gets -sold-. But this is proof of the statement, there really are idiots out there who don't even do basic things like add lighting to the scene and yet get customers, let alone viewers. In contrast the quality of the stuff in SITA is great and even in other vdate games the art is reasonably good.

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  6. "what I consider "Groundhog Day" gameplay"

    The more I think about it, the more I agree that Groundhog Day is a great analogy for this game.

    It's most obvious in the "Do You Know Any Gymnasts?" ending because if you assume that that single playthrough is the totality of what has happened, then you don't. However, if you've Bill Murray'd your way through the other 39 endings you do.

    The only place where the analogy falls down is that you don't get to live happily ever after with Andie MacDowell (Ariane/Rachel/whoever). I guess that would have gotten in the way of teasing a sequel, but that's a whole other rant.

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    1. As a couple of people at Shark's Lagoon pointed out, because the "Do You Know Any Gymnasts?" requires "Did It All!!" the PC would in fact know that Ariane did gymnastics at high school (which is retconned to college in this game).

      The Groundhog Day analogy still applies to the player though.

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  7. I agree with your comments. The PC in SITA is essentially along for the ride, and most of the time it isn't a very pleasant ride either. Even though the player sometimes gets to make "choices" there seldom seems to be any clues as to what implications they might have. I have to say that the experience was very disappointing, despite the massive step forward in technical quality. For something billed as a romantic comedy, there's very little romance and no noticeable comedy.
    The storytelling is ambitious, and I think the author deserves applause for choosing to inject something new into the genre. But it strikes me that it would have been better served by removing the illusion of player agency and treating it as a straightforward slideshow. That would have removed the need to stay with a fixed viewpoint, and perhaps made it more acceptable to those who viewed it.

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    1. There's a Director's Commentary available on ArianeB's blog (http://arianeb.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/directors-commentary-1-another-date-with-ariane/), which makes interesting reading.

      The reason I mention it in reference to your comment is this:
      "SITA is a story about how seemingly mundane choices lead to incredible outcomes. The simple choice of, “Do I get up?” or “Do I go back to bed?” can, in this universe, change the world."

      That pretty much encapsulates the main problem I (and apparently you) have with this game, because it's a storytelling objective that can only be achieved at the expense of gameplay. If the choices are seemingly mundane, how can the player make an informed decision? Obviously you can't, so you have to guess, and guessing is not gameplay.

      I agree that it would have been easier to enjoy this game without the illusion of player agency. An earlier draft of this review mentioned that there's a reason most visual novels have a defined protagonist. An anonymous protagonist implies that the player has agency, which doesn't work when it's actually the author who's leading the story.

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  8. I'm glad to read this review. I was completely underwhelmed by this game is every way but graphically. The characters are unlikeable and hilariously unlikely. The storytelling is weak. The 'sexy' content is completely uninteresting.

    I've seen people lose their shit over it, and I just don't understand (except for the fact that they were interacting with the creator at the time). It did nothing for me in any way except provide some annoyance.

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    1. People tend to be more circumspect when it comes to criticising someone to their face (I know I am), and when that someone is as popular as ArianeB your expectation is that no one will agree with your opinions (or worse, you'll be attacked for expressing them) so it's easier to keep silent.

      More generally, the attitude of the author has an effect as well. If your work is the subject of criticism, the natural instinct is to become defensive or reject the criticism outright, which in turn makes it less likely that anyone else will provide negative feedback (or any feedback for that matter). ArianeB has been pretty good in that regard, but I can think of one or two authors who aren't. Conversely, dealing positively with criticism encourages more feedback (Wolfschadowe is someone I'd point to as being very good in this regard).

      I've actually been surprised that there's been as much criticism for SITA as there has. The majority relates to the content, which is understandable, but I've also seen mention of the implausibility of the characters, that Ariane seems too angry, and so on. That said, I don't doubt that the people who've been effusive in their praise actually enjoyed the game. If the lack of content or player agency doesn't bother you, then I can see how it would be considered a good game.

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