Justice Playthrough #100: Purplest Prose

Why is it competitive?

Page 32, Game 12: Purplest Prose by Pammu

You and your friends are all trashy romance writers, collaborating to produce some trashy romance. Everybody will roll-up the two leads and a basic premise based on the chart on the second (final) page of the rules, and pitch their “idea.” Players will decide as a group which one they want to run with. Then, writing!

The game will go through multiple rounds, covering various pieces of the story — character introductions, first meeting, when do they fall in love, when do they first bang, etc. Players have two minutes to write their version of this section on a notecard. All notecards are passed to the Editorial Assistant (a rotating position who must sit out of the fun part each round), who will then read all the submissions and choose which one to add to the story. Whoever wrote the winning entry gets a little token, a new player becomes the Editorial Assistant, and play proceeds until the novel is complete! Whoever gets the most tokens wins.

I have no doubt that the person who created this game played it and had a lot of fun with it. So when I say that it’s “insanely underdeveloped,” please know that I’m not trying to imply that they didn’t bother playtesting it at all. I’m sure they did, and I’m sure they and their friends had a lovely time. I’m sure they then said “Hey, we had a great time, let’s write down these rules and call it done!” and moved on.

No, the reason I’m calling this game insanely underdeveloped — and it is INSANELY underdeveloped — is I get the feeling they stopped trying to find the BEST version of this game very quickly. This feels like an extremely early iteration of the core idea. I see so many problems here, problems that could have — and should have — both come out and been fixed with more playtesting.

First, why is it competitive? Each round, only one person’s section will be added to the finished work. You’re basically simulating the experience of submitting fiction to a slushpile and waiting for a response. I used to be a semi-pro writer; that shit is NOT FUN. It’s frustrating. It sucks. This game very much depends on having a table full of players who are all of roughly equivalent writing skills. If there’s a really striking skill disparity present, I would expect some players to have a really shitty time as their work gets rejected over and over in favor of what their more polished friends produce.

I imagine the rules saying to develop a writer persona are meant to mitigate that; your friends aren’t rejecting YOUR writing, they’re rejecting the writing of Frank Wierzboski, a former construction worker who turned to writing cuz he’s been going a bit stir crazy collecting workman’s comp all day after he fucked-up his back on the job. (“He pounded her like a pneumatic hammer being operated by a teenager with insufficient training.”) It’s a good idea — and one that’s completely undeveloped, meriting only a couple of throwaway paragraphs. Why not flesh that out a bit more? Maybe even add a THIRD page to the rules?

But even then, why does only one player’s contribution get immortalized each round? And why does one player need to sit out of the fun bit each time? Instead, why not make it more like Writey Drawey?

For the uninitiated, Writey Drawey (also known as “Eat Poop You Cat”) is my wife’s favorite party game. All you need is a whole fuckton of index cards and some pens. You make a stack of seven cards for each player. At the start of the game, everybody writes a simple phrase on the top card, and passes the stack to the left. Then, each player looks at that phrase, puts the card on the bottom, draws a picture meant to represent that phrase, and passes the stack to the left. Then, each player looks at the picture, puts the card on the bottom, writes down the phrase they think that picture was supposed to represent, and passes the stack to the left. And thus the cycle continues. Once all the stacks are complete, players take turns revealing the full chains of madness that they as a group have just created.

The great thing about this game is that even though drawing is an integral part of it, the game levels the playing field. Skill is optional. Crude stick figures may struggle to convey as much meaning as better-drawn pics, but they can be just as funny — if not even funnier.

Also, Writey Drawey has no formally declared winner. It doesn’t need one. It’s effectively a co-op game where the goal is to make each other laugh. Spoiler: you’re probably all gonna win.

I feel like there’s a version of Purplest Prose that learns some lessons from Writey Drawey and, instead of creating ONE novel, creates SEVERAL, one for each player at the table. EVERYBODY’S initial pitch gets accepted. Then, everybody writes down the first section (“Introduce Character A”) on the first card. They they hand their stack to another writer, who reads what they’ve written and writes the next section themselves (“Introduce Character B”). Everybody’s contributions, no matter how wretched, are added to a finished product. Everybody gets to play, nobody has to sit the round out. At the end of the game, everybody reads the finished products to the table. I’m willing to be they’ll be disjointed, wretched, and hilarious.

So, during the game, who do you hand the cards to? Do you just give ’em to the player on your left, or is there some way to mix it up more than that? And how far back are players allowed to read? Surely they need to know the core characters and concept, but are they allowed to read EVERYTHING that’s come before? Or is that part of the game — you need to quickly skim what other people have written, because the clock is ticking and you need to get YOUR shit written down?

I honestly don’t know. That’s why you take ideas like this, and playtest them. You see what works best. You see what problems emerge, and come up with ways to solve them that keep everybody having a good time. You see what’s the MOST fun. This is how you develop a game.

This is what Purplest Prose needed to become more than a cool idea for a game. There’s a fun little writing exercise here, and I have no doubt that if you have the right circle of friends, you’d have a good time with it. But I have no confidence that this represents the best game that could be derived from this exercise.

But what the hell, the charts on the second page of the rules have some work behind them. They might be a solid starting point if you wanted to take a crack at making that game yourself.

All right, up next … is going to be something planned.

100 reviews. That merits a bit of a retrospective, not just another dice roll.

Justice Playthrough #99: Jet Buster

ShootashootashootashootaSHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!

Page 34, Game 28: Jet Buster by JackDarx

This is a vertical scroller-shooter with the emphasis on SHOOOOOOOOOOOOT.

Also, you’re a cat lady singer. Just roll with it.

You shoot things that are trying to shoot you, with both of you spamming terrifying quantities of pew-pews at each other. Seriously, there’s no reason to ever take your thumb off the “SHOOOOOOOT” button.

I’m largely unfamiliar with this genre; I always dug 1942-style shooters, but this is that dialed up to ELEVENTY BILLION, and I’m pretty confident that’s it’s own thing. So, I’m not really in a position to know whether this is introducing some worthwhile twists of its own or if it’s just More Of The Same. But, that does make me vaguely blank-slate-ish, so I can evaluate it sort of on its own terms.

This thing is a bastard to screenshot, though; if I take my fingers off the dodge and SHOOOOOOOOOOT buttons long enough to get a screenshot, I asplode

So, how is it?

It’s … all right. There’s definitely a fun bad-ass feel to darting around blowing the unholy crap out of anything and everything. But it might be too much of a good thing. There’s just NO REASON to stop shooting, ever. The game often boils down to figuring out how to weave my way through the torrents of return fire so I don’t get blowed up. This means I’m often focused on a comparatively narrow portion of the screen, and just trusting that other stuff is probably blowing up the way I need it to.

There are some ideas here that the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining. When stuff blows up, coins start drifting down the screen. (They’re translucent and difficult to see, but given how much this game has a vested interest in reducing screen clutter, that’s not a bad call.) When you catch them, a meter goes up! Why do I want that meter going up? I’m … not sure. More numbers means more better, right?

You DO use the coins to continue; run out of lives, you’ll need X coins to continue. Not enough coins, go back to the beginning. I quite like this; it’s a clever approach.

You can change to a different shooting mode by holding down a particular button as you shoot (which is awkward — why not just make it a shootin’ button in its own right?), which is less efficient but causes opponents to drop medals instead of coins. I eventually figured out those medals are what allow you to purchase unlocks elsewhere in the game. There’s apparently some sort of connection between the coins and the medals, but I’m not sure I get what it is.

Ultimately, it’s too fiddly for my liking, too unforgiving. Finding the gaps in a gigantic bullet maelstrom just isn’t my bag. But if it’s yours, this game is probably worth a look. Maybe it’ll be too familiar, but maybe it’ll give you something new.

All right, random number generator. Wanna close out the first 100 games with something cool?

Page 32, Game 12: Purplest Prose by Pammu

“A Trashy Game About Trashy Writers Writing Trashy Romance”

Heh. All righty then.

Justice Playthrough #98: Gataela

This is not ready.

Page 24, Game 18: Gataela by Atemly Games

In light of the fact that this is a pre-release demo, I’m going to try to limit the degree to which I go all jerkass critic on this one. But I want it on the record that going FULL metal jerkass was absolutely on the table here.

This is a top-down JRPG. You’re a shopkeeper’s assistant, in a land that had a devastating civil war ten years ago (but things seem pretty all right now). You’re trying to help out your friends and employer; times are tough, work and money are both scarce.

First, as much as I dislike this game, credit where it’s due: it LOOKS fantastic.

Fruitstand Lady is honestly a really nice boss

The world looks warm and appealing, the incidental bits have a nice sense of steampunk flair. It’s a completely credible looking game.

Playing the game, unfortunately, is where things start coming apart.

For all the opening text sets a Fate of Nations kinda tone, the story starts off very small. Your introductory “quest” is running down a kid who stole a loaf of bread while you were on your lunch break. I’d say that you get to choose whether to go all Javert on him or not, save that I don’t recall actually getting a choice; the merciful option appeared to be the only one available to me. Hell, even the clever option of trading him my lunch so I could return the loaf of bread wasn’t something I came up with, it was just assumed.

Which is fine, I guess. I tend to go the Good Guy route pretty hard when I have the choice. Just raised my eyebrows a bit when that was the ONLY option.

The great Loaf Caper is the tutorial quest, and you get into your first fight, where the game reveals that it’s going the Final Fantasy turn-based route. This is the first really severe problem: the combat is boring as hell.

Not sure these guys understand how “punching” works

You punch, they punch. Somebody’s gonna run out of hit points, and whoever runs out first loses. That’s it. Just stand there and trade shots.

You can choose to dodge or block, but … why? You can’t block them to death, you must punch. So, punch.

There’s also a “debate” mechanism, which the game treats as some sort of major innovation. Some characters want to “debate” you, which means “Have a conversation that isn’t inconsequential background chatter.” To the debate screen we go!

Much debate! Very conflict!

In order to “win” the debate, you must select the correct dialog options. Which ones are correct? Eh, guess. It’s not like you have any way of knowing.

Choose the wrong dialog option, lose the debate. But, don’t worry, you can just restart the debate at no penalty whatsoever, save for the real-life time you wasted.

This is deeply unsatisfying. But, given that this is how the plot advances, there needs to be SOME mechanism for letting you recover from whatever faux pas you just made.

The plot wasn’t grabbing me. I appreciate that it was trying to keep things small-scale and intimate before gradually expanding in scope, but the opening text put me in exactly the wrong frame of mind to care about helping my boss keep her fruit stand running.

Unfortunately, following that plot is where the game irrevocably lost me.

To figure out what was up with her supplier, I had to travel to a nearby town and ask WTF was going on. This is, naturally, dangerous, as one would expect from the conventions of the genre.

Yeah, that is not the exclamation point of Snek Friendship right there

However, fighting triggers the fight minigame, which, as I’ve established, I hate. So, I avoided it wherever possible.

I get to the town, I eventually have a chat with the supplier. I work out a deal where he’ll provide the fruit for a little more money. And then, IMMEDIATELY after the conversation concludes, three goons jump me and BEAT THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF ME. Game over.

The fight was not even remotely winnable. There were no other choices I could really make; just punch, punch, punch. The three of them ran me out of hit points WAY before I could return the favor.

The way the game is set up, it looked like I could have at least two other companions. You can also get gear. I had neither. So, I reloaded the game, and retreated all the way back to my home town to see if I missed any gear or allies.

Gear is outrageously expensive. I DID find a weapons shop, where a set of brass knuckles cost about twenty times the cash I had on me. I started talking to people in the hopes that some of them would turn out to want to join me, but go no hint that anybody might.

I wandered around a bit and found some random junk in the countryside, but nothing that would turn the tide of a curb-stomp battle. I did grind a bit, though, and managed to make third level.

Wondering if perhaps that was enough, I returned to the site of the massacre, redid the conversation, and retriggered the fight. I once again got the shit beaten out of me, but did a lot more damage on my way to the grave (without getting particularly close to winning). So, does that mean I need to be fourth level to have a reasonable chance of winning? Or maybe fifth?

Whatever. I believe one of two things happened here:

The first is that I was SUPPOSED to find some combination of companions and/or gear, but managed to completely overlook them. If this is the case, then the game is doing an abominable job of directing me towards them, because I was actively looking for them and came up empty.

The second is that the game wasn’t expecting me to simply beeline for the main storyline, and was indeed counting on me aimlessly faffing about in the countryside until I gained more levels. Given how boring I found the combat to be, that was simply not going to happen. Perhaps there were some side quests I could have tripped over?

Regardless. Either the game is so poorly designed that I cannot trust it to guide me to the resources I need to advance, or it has so little faith in its main storyline that it doesn’t think I’m likely to pursue it. Neither theory makes me interested in continuing.

As mentioned, this game is in an early state. And like I said, it looks fantastic. I did appreciate the feel that I really was a member of a community, that there was plenty of shit going on around me that had nothing to do with me. It really did feel like a living city. But neither of the game’s two big conflict resolution mechanisms were at all interesting to me: combat is rote and tedious, and “debate” is a simple matter of guessing the correct dialog path over and over until you get it right. Even if I wasn’t savagely murdered for caring about the plot, I really don’t know that I would have bothered following all the way through to the end of the demo. There’s just not much game in this game.

Hopefully this next one will be more fun to play:

Page 34, Game 28: Jet Buster by JackDarx

“90s Anthro Bullet Hell Action”

Fuck yeah.

Justice Playthrough #97: The Stars Whisper

Whoa. That was heavy as fuck.

Page 45, Game 9: The Stars Whisper by Wheel Tree Press

In this game, you and between 7 and 11 of your friends (and one facilitator) will pretend to be stars. This entails lying in a dark room in a very specific place in your constellation, whispering to each other (space is BIG, you guys) and playing with your flashlight (and the light on your phone will do nicely, assuming your battery can survive that much use). What do stars have to say to each other? The game has some ideas. See what you wind up saying.

This is less of a “game” and more of a facilitated experience. I don’t want to say too much about it; the rules specify that it works best if the players come in relatively cold only knowing the rudiments, and having looked through the entire ruleset, I believe it. For the right group of players, one interested in tackling some REALLY hefty emotional themes, this could be one hell of an experience. Something that’ll have the players involved saying “Hey, remember that time we all pretended to be stars at Nick’s place?” for YEARS, possibly as a prelude to discussing some really difficult shit.

The game advises warning players that it deals with themes of isolation and loss, so … yeah. I can say that without spoiling anything.

If you and your LARP buddies would like to do something a bit more resonant than punching goblins and don’t mind ending the night in a somber and contemplative headspace, this looks like it might be one hell of a game. I haven’t actually played it, but I’m quite comfortable recommending it.

Okay, script. Got anything maybe a little lighter for me?

Page 24, Game 18: Gataela by Atemly Games

“A Victorian Steampunk RPG! Debate, convince and negotiate with NPCs in order to save the country!”

Yeah, let’s do a colonialism. But, like, with gears and shit.

Justice Playthrough #96: black mass

What if Pixar, but 17th century puritan witchcraft?

Page 15, Game 27: black mass by will jobst

In Black Mass, players will be taking the roles of Lydia and Catherine, a girl and young woman (respectively) in 1690 Salem. They’ll be fleeing into the woods for the titular black mass, where they’ll discover … something.

What are they fleeing from? What are they going to discover? That is, of course, what you’re playing to figure out.

If you’re familiar with the indie games scene — or, if you’re bouncing through a gigantic pack of indie games at random without actually playing them because fuck it the world is ending and what else are you gonna do, but yinz may or may not relate to that one — that description probably gives you a pretty clear vision of what the game is like. Something small, just a few pages, that gives a few broad outlines and leaves the bulk of figuring out the game in your capable hands.

You would be wrong. So completely, utterly wrong.

Even cutting out the illustrations and Kickstarter thank yous, the rulebook is easy 50 pages’ worth of material. This game is very highly structured, and the book walks you through all of it.

For starters, just what kind of “witchcraft” are we talking about here? The game suggests playing in one of three fundamental “modes:” basically, you’re either talking full-on broomsticks and boiling cauldrons shit, historically accurate psycho-drama, or some combination of both being used for some blood-on-the-snow horror.

From there … remember how I specified that you’ll be playing Catherine and Lydia? And are you still confused by my throwaway Pixar joke in the cold open? No matter how many of you there are playing the game (and one of you will be acting as the GM), you will be controlling these two pre-defined characters Inside Out style.

Each of you will choose from one of the nine personas defined for each of the two girls. Perhaps you will be Catherine’s love of music, and Lydia’s tendency to creepy-whistle. Or Catherine’s fondness for secrets, and Lydia’s relationship with the woods. You’ll take turns “driving” at various stages of the game — and the game has very well-defined stages.

You’ll also use a Tarot deck to figure out what’s going on, with cards that compliment and/or conflict with whatever persona you’re currently inhabiting. You will assemble the cards at various stages, and you will tell a complete story.

This game intrigues me. Not enough that I would want to put a group together to play it (post-pandemic), but it’s such the polar opposite of so many games I’ve encountered. The focus is comically narrow, down to specifying the names and ages of the two girls at its heart. But the game explores that topic with intense structure, and clearly has a ton of work and thought behind it.

The end result is something unique and intriguing. I don’t know that I’m into it enough to put the work into manufacturing an opportunity to try it, but I’d take that opportunity if it happened by. Very cool game.

But will this game be as innovative?

Page 45, Game 9: The Stars Whisper by Wheel Tree Press

“A LARP for 8 to 12 players that asks: what do stars talk about as they shine into the void of space?”

Oh, you know, star stuff. Hydrogen burn rates, gossip on who’s gone supernova, that sorta thing.