May 20, 2015 Leave a comment
Early on in Dyscourse, after your plane crashes and you’re stranded on an island with a “quirky” cast of survivors, you salvage a yellow and black hexagonal disk from the wreckage. For some reason, they name it “Disky” and proceed to treat it like Wilson from Castaway.
I don’t get it. That’s not funny.
See, the Wilson joke worked in Castaway because (1) Tom Hanks cut his hand and left a bloody hand print on the volleyball that looked like a face (2) the ball’s brand name was Wilson, which is an actual name real people have (3) Tom Hanks was alone and had nobody to talk to, so he had conversations with the ball. Disky doesn’t look like anything, even a disk. There’s no face on it, or anything remotely resembling a face. And there’s nobody on this planet named Disky. And there’s six people to talk to. Nothing about this joke works. It’s just dumb. Dumb isn’t really funny just by itself when you use it in dialog. A video of someone doing something stupid is funny, but in writing, you need a punchline. In most of the story paths I took in Dyscourse, there was no payoff to the joke. It’s just, hey, let’s pretend Disky is a person, because QUIRK! However, in one of the story paths, an attempt is made to pay it off by making the group treat Disky like a deity. At this point, the writing transitions from clumsy to trying too hard.
There’s really not a ton of things wrong with what little there is of Dyscourse’s gameplay. In fact, it’s done exactly the way I like choose-your-own adventure games to be. Once you finish the game, you can go back to any the previous days you’ve finished so that you can choose a different option and have the game play out a different way without starting all the way over at the beginning. Where the path deviates is always very clear, so you won’t have to replay one spot multiple times until you figure out the winning formula for getting a different version of the plot to open up. If you’re going to do a game like this, that’s the way you should do it. That doesn’t actually mean the story is told properly, though. Sometimes characters die whether you’re around them or not, leaving you to feel like what little control you have isn’t really enough. If it’s not that, it’s the characters are all stereotypes who don’t really get a chance to develop. In my first play-through, I had no idea Teddy was a weird conspiracy theory-type. But then the end credits implied that he was. Teddy died quickly when I left him to drown while trapped under a tree, but still, there should have been enough time to allow this characterization to come through. So in my next play-through, I tried to get to know him better. The only good that came from this was I stumbled upon the one gag in the game that made me laugh: Teddy spent decades trying to gain access to military secrets to discover what happened to his long-lost brother, eventually getting a job in.. the mail room!
I said he got a job IN THE MAIL ROOM! Get it? No? Eh, fuck it. You had to be there.
The gameplay is fairly limited. Talk to people, click on things, choose an option from a menu, and see what happens. Games like this are dependent on sharp writing to carry them. For what it’s worth, the majority of critics seem to disagree with me about Dyscourse’s writing, which makes me wonder if stuff like Disky is some sort of reference to a deserted island show like Lost or Gilligan’s Island that’s going over my head. But it’s not just the jokes that I felt don’t work. All the transitions from story beat to story beat felt clumsy.
For example, in one section, it starts raining and you have to decide if the group will bail in search of a cave or stay put. I chose to look for a cave. But, before the search, I also had to choose whether or not I would grab the supplies, which at this point consisted of two bags of pretzels and a signal flare. Members of the group hastily shouted at me that WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW! WE DON’T HAVE TIME! Which was mind-boggling. Why did we have to leave right then? What was the rush? I could have bought the sense of urgency if the game had presented us with something to be nervous over. It didn’t. Not only that, but those supplies? They were right FUCKING there, just a couple of feet away from where I was standing. You could see them! It’s so logically brain-dead that I’m wondering if this is another possible joke that went over my head, or some kind of social commentary on mob mentality. I felt that way every time the plot started to move forward, the motivations and dialog feeling tacked on and rushed through.
Dyscourse is a tough game to review, because this is one of those eye of the beholder games. You’ll either be charmed out of your socks or you’ll be bored. You’ll either laugh your ass off or you’ll cringe. There’s not a lot of middle ground. A lot of people like the art style. I didn’t. I thought main character Rita looked like an anamorphic scarecrow made of wood. I thought Teddy looked like 1910 Frankenstein. The character models were just bizarre. To put it in perspective, my boyfriend created this picture. Can you tell which is a character that’s actually in the game and which is a Garbage Pail Kid that he photoshopped in?
Again, eye of the beholder. Given the sheer number of satisfied backers Dyscourse has (even holding the scroll button down, it takes quite a while for them to finish up in the end credits), obviously this style has its audience. The gameplay does too, though if you’re expecting something like Don’t Starve, keep looking. Dyscourse is a choose-your-own adventure title. Rudimentary fetch-quests and often meaningless point-and-clickery. The stock characters are dull. The Animal Crossing style gibberish they speak gets annoying really fast. I never found myself invested in their plight, and as anyone who has read my Walking Dead reviews knows, when that happens I get a little homicidal. I successfully killed off a couple of members of the party, sometimes without trying, but even that felt oddly unsatisfying. You can sum up my experience with the fact that I eventually decided to commit suicide by giving up a spot in a sleeping bag to the two other survivors while trekking up a mountain, because she was that fucking boring, and the people I was with were boring. Really, if I had actually been stuck with two people like this in a survival situation, starving, freezing, beaten-up? Yea, I would have rather been dead. But even that didn’t work. I survived the night, though one of my hands had frostbite and fell off. My first play-through ended shortly after, and I’ve been struggling to work up the willpower to unlock other story paths ever since. It’s nearly 2AM as I write this, and I’m kicking myself for not grabbing a screencap of Disky when it first popped up, because that means I have to go back and play some more, and I don’t want to.
Dyscourse isn’t terrible. I didn’t hate it. Not even close. I don’t like to use the term “not for me” because it sounds like a huge cop-out, but it really wasn’t for me. I wouldn’t have even bothered playing as far as I did, but it was this month’s charity challenge game from my buddies at Indie Game Riot (the good news? $14.99 will be donated to the Epilepsy Foundation by them for me reviewing this). It comes back to the writing. Some critics have called it witty or sharp. I thought the jokes fell flat, the dialog was Death Valley levels of dry, and the concept as a whole was pretty tired. Mileage on that seems to vary greatly. Throw up a YouTube video of the first chapter. Did you laugh? You might like the game. Did you not? It doesn’t get any better the further you make it in. Meh, I don’t know what else to say. Most people liked it. I didn’t. Please don’t burn my house down, fans of the game. After all, Dyscourse is about discourse, the implication being polite is the way to go.
What’s that? You liked the game but also arbitrarily murdered members of the surviving party, the same way I did? Well shit.
$14.99 kept holding out hope we were stuck on the same island with Green Arrow in the making of this review. That way we could have killed and eaten him.