August 11, 2014

Review: Circles of Desire by Cassgames

The release of Circles of Desire was recently announced on aifarchive (and Shark's Lagoon). It's a graphical TADS3 game playable online at http://www.cassgames.com (there is currently no offline version).

The plot of the game is that the PC is trapped at his boss's house by a snowstorm on Christmas Day. She seems a little too pleased to have him as her guest and eventually suggests that they play an erotic boardgame (the eponymous Circles of Desire) together. Because what could be more erotic than being sexually harassed by your boss?

As you may be able to guess, I wasn't immediately enamoured with that setup, especially since the opening is almost entirely linear with the player just doing what they're told. The actual meat of the game is the boardgame, which is essentially a variation on Truth or Dare (adding to the coincidental similarities with The Snowstorm from this year's Minicomp). Playing it is quite fun, but it suffers from being predominantly random and, more importantly, having a limited number of truths and dares (meaning that you'll see some of them many many times, which breaks immersion in a major way).

From a design point of view, the most striking thing about CoD is the sidelining of the text parser. Instead, the player is provided with a set of buttons corresponding to the available actions. It's a decision that I instinctively disliked as although the text parser can be clunky or frustrating, it also involves the player by forcing them to think about what they're doing within the gameworld. If you're confronted with a list of the actions available to you, then the tendency is to methodically work through them without thinking too hard about which one would actually be most appropriate, which is not a great way to get the player interested in the game.


However, my dislike of the button system was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the game is quite linear and, more importantly, there's little effort to disguise that linearity. If the player is going to be told what to do, then clicking a button or a link is obviously a lot more convenient. The player isn't giving up any agency, because there wasn't really any to begin with. Additionally, the presence of the interface discourages the player from straying off the path laid out for them, thus preventing them from trying other actions which, while logical in the circumstances, are either unimplemented or blocked off for plot reasons. I can't help feeling that CoD would have worked better as a CYOA game, or even a visual novel, as then the player would have expected this lack of interactivity.

The screen real estate is used rather inefficiently. Graphics are displayed in the top half of the screen, generally leaving large gaps on either side. Meanwhile, the text is squashed into a much smaller area, requiring a lot of scrolling to read. There's also no save game functionality, forcing you to play the game from the very beginning if you want to do something differently (as opposed to reloading a savegame from just before the boardgame starts). Apart from that, I noticed two or three bugs, plus a scattering of typos, which suggests that the game wasn't tested very strenuously. On the plus side, Colleen's 'fidgets' (which vary according to how she's dressed) and the other ambient effects are well implemented and make the gameworld feel more believable. Likewise, limiting the player's interactions means that more attention can be focused on the few things they will do, which also improves the game's visible quality.

Colleen is the only NPC of real note, and I'd describe her as a creepy sexual predator. It's pretty obvious that she's set up the entire situation in order to seduce the PC, what with trying to get him drunk and then 'suggesting' that they play a boardgame for couples (the PC can refuse, but is ignored). That situation could still be potentially erotic, but for me it's undermined by the fact that Colleen doesn't seem to care about the PC as a person. She's not just indifferent to the fact that he is happily in a long-term relationship, she seems to be amused that it presents her with more of a challenge. Not that she doubts her ultimate success, as she arrogantly drops a lot of hints to that effect which the PC is too dense to pick up on. However, it's hard to know exactly what she wants from the PC. From her actions I would have said that she sees him as just another notch on her bedpost or, at best, a new possession (witness how casually she fucks up the PC's life because she doesn't want to share 'her' lover). However, during the boardgame she claims she doesn't do one night stands, which suggests that's she's thinking of something a little more serious. She could of course be lying, and she is annoyingly evasive with some of the questions. But if that were the case, it would pretty much eliminate her major source of characterisation. Either way, it's hard to square her behaviour with what happens if the PC turns her down (which somehow results in them becoming best friends).

Much like Colleen, the PC's characterisation is a bit contradictory. He's supposedly devoted to his girlfriend and would never cheat on her (or anyone else), but somehow he doesn't see any problem with playing a 'couples' game with another woman (his girlfriend certainly would, judging from the conversation they had just five minutes before). You could excuse the PC's behaviour by saying that he's a little drunk, but his inhibitions are otherwise intact and stop him from flirting with Colleen even if they're both completely naked. As mentioned above, he's also pretty unperceptive. Only in one particular set of circumstances does he realise what Colleen is up to (and then only when the trap is already sprung). His general failure to do so, in the face of the blatant hints that Colleen drops, could have been written off as naiveté if he were younger. But at the age of twenty-eight it just makes him look stupid (the one flaw in a PC that I can't forgive).

I think a good PC is either a character that the player likes being or someone they want to help succeed in their goals (and preferably both). I didn't like being the PC because I thought he was an idiot, so what about his goals? You might think the PC's goal is to remain faithful to his girlfriend. After all they are high school sweethearts and everything he says about her makes it sound like he thinks they're soulmates. But if that's the case, why doesn't he politely (but firmly) refuse Colleen's advances the moment she produces the boardgame? Conversely, since this is AIF you might think his goal is to have sex with the hot woman who's clearly interested in him. But if that's the case, why can't he reciprocate or encourage her in any way? As far as I can see, the PC's actual 'goal' is simply to behave in the way that the plot dictates and passively wait for the point at which he's allowed to make a decision. Needless to say, I don't think that makes for a good protagonist.

The sex scene is a little limited since the PC is unable to order Colleen to do anything (which is about the only time the fact that she's his boss affects anyone's behaviour). The truths revealed during the boardgame do alter what happens, but I would have found it more interesting if the player had been able to actively employ that knowledge instead. The quality of the graphics (which are excellent) along with the solid writing make the scene enjoyable overall, but it has something of a downer ending where Colleen ruins the PC's relationship with his girlfriend (and thus his life in general) for no real payoff. It's also the worst kind of twist since it's sign-posted well in advance but the player isn't allowed to do anything to avoid it (eg, calling Pat to say good night or turning the PC's phone off). The 'happy' ending is therefore turning Colleen down, but that does seem counter to the entire point of the game (and, as mentioned above, the results are not very believable).

If you've read this far, you might be surprised to learn that I still enjoyed playing CoD. Yes, there are a lot of things I wish had been done differently, but the basic fundamentals are solid and the graphics are excellent (which papers over a lot of cracks). I think part of the reason for my negative reaction is due to how CoD was presented. If it had simply been uploaded to aifarchive, I would have thought it was a fun short game, even if it wasn't entirely to my tastes. However, having it hosted on a professional looking website had the effect of raising my expectations (as did the website's claim that the story was great). The compromises that had to be made for the online format were also among the biggest things that diminished my enjoyment of the game. However, if you treat CoD simply as a fun little diversion you won't be disappointed and you'll probably be looking forward to the next game from this team.

2 comments:

  1. Good review, ExLibris. It pretty much mirrors my own thoughts on the game (though you explain it much better!).

    It had an extremely Twine-like feel to it and there was really no room for exploration. It let you look at the various objects in the game, but none except the present and dice were really of any importance. The open verb could have been left out completely thanks to the clickable text.

    I don't entirely mind the point that the boss was a bit of a freak who just wanted sex and didn't care about you. Often the PC of these AIF games feel like that, so it is interesting to see it turned around. What makes it bad is what you mentioned - that you are portrayed one way but act the other. All people have sexual urges, sure, but it felt entirely out of character with what little I knew about the PC.

    I agree with the points about the website as well, something I hadn't really thought of until now. It looks like you are going to get into something really special. There is even a spot for donations and an unlockable gallery to see more high quality photos. You go in expecting some game with incredible depth or a great literary work, but end up with a rather simple game with great graphics but sadly little else.

    I hate to sound so down on it, though. It is still a fun diversion, but it is over very quickly and there is little else to do. The story can be ran through quite quickly and there are only two basic endings as far as I could tell - do your boss and end things terribly or avoid the whole A in the AIF game and everything turns out great.

    I'm sure it took tons of work to get the game out there, especially with the graphical aspect, and I appreciate their work, but it is fairly forgettable and not all that alluring to me.

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  2. Mostly, I am shocked at a emergence of new commercial AIF games. Or at least semi-commercial. Was this an outgrowth of the AIF community at large? I feel like this came out of nowhere. But perhaps I'm just not following the AIF archive anymore so it seems sudden.

    I only played a little bit, but I was pretty impressed by the GUI. It's something I wanted to figure out how to do, but right now it's a difficult thing with Inform.

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