Hands On: Richard & Alice

By John Walker on July 17th, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Oh noes, where's Barney?

Every argument I’ve seen defending why there’s no writing category for the IGFs looks damned stupid when you encounter an indie game that shines through its story. It was abundantly obvious that it was a mistake when we first saw To The Moon (just released on GOG), and it’s about to look like a stupid decision all over again when Richard & Alice is released. After a 45 minute preview version, I’m already sold on the writing, and already annoyed that those awards won’t recognise it.

Disclaimer: one of the co-creators, Lewis Denby, is an occasional contributor to RPS.

Richard and Alice are prisoners. It’s an odd prison, the sort that gives you a PC and a flatscreen TV in your cell. But there are bars on the door, and there’s no getting out. Richard has been there a while, Alice has just arrived, and from what the preview code shows, this is going to be a game about their getting to know each other as they chat across the hall. Mostly via extended flashbacks to the stories that got them where they are.

It’s clearly some time in the future – Richard tells us that the re-runs of nature documentaries on his TV show creatures now extinct. And Alice’s tales quickly reveal that there has been some sort of apocalypse, the sort that brings constant, society-devastating snows. The two flashback scenes I’ve played through both feature Alice, with her five year old son, Barney, struggling to escape from an abusive kidnapper, and then fight to find shelter in the barren cold. And yes, if somewhat clumsily, the similarities these sequences share with McCarthy’s The Road are acknowledged straight away.

But here’s the thing: those similarities are a compliment to the standard here. The graphics are particularly crude pixel stuff, and the screwed-perspective top-down-yet-side-on presentation is a bit clunky here (although bear in mind this is alpha code, with all subject to change). But this is about the tale being told, and the believability of the relationships presented. And instantly I believed in the mother-son connection between Alice and Barney. His perfectly pitched five-year-old speak, and her kindly, frayed patience responses, offer a depth of maternal love and childhood innocence, along with tempers, fear and the quiet horror of a small child so familiar with the concept of death. Where Alice tries to make every frightening situation into a game for Barney to play, the kid sees through the pretence, and seems to play along for his own sake, rather than credulity. When a sequence has you leave Barney off screen for a moment, his not being stood where you left him gives a real internal gulp, after only minutes spent with the two.

Let’s keep the McCarthy references in check – the author’s extraordinarily powerful prose and exceptional poetic presence isn’t replicated here. But the emotion remains. The limited version I’ve played doesn’t give much of a glimpse into the life of Richard, nor why he’s in the prison. Alice, we’re told at the very start, may well have murdered someone to find her way inside. But just how a modern, electronically advanced prison is something that can exist in the world shown in flashback is perhaps the game’s biggest mystery, and most distinguishing theme.

There’s a ton of potential here. The shaky graphics stop mattering almost straight away, as a meaningful story starts presenting itself to you in an intelligent way. I do stop and wonder if this is perhaps more a case of the incredibly poor standards of storytelling in the majority of gaming, rather than anything being exceptional here. But what’s been shown so far is certainly very good, and definitely one of very few games to have ever attempted to have a meaningful, realistic, and non-magical relationship between a parent and child. Which, to use the word correctly for once, makes it something particularly mature. I’m very excited to see more of this.

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31 Comments »

  1. Ian says:

    That looks proper interesting.

    And the blurb at the top reminds me that I’ve still yet to get To The Moon.

  2. Premium User Badge Revisor says:

    I love games that have an interesting, well-written story to tell.

    Color me interested.

  3. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I reckon you’re right but it should be called narrative design, not writing, because it’s a separate discipline from writing imo.

    • Jambe says:

      I thought “narrative” was synonymous with story, account, chronicle, etc, in which case, no, it’s not a separate discipline. I’d agree if you said games writing is more akin to script-writing than novel-penning, but that’s extra-pedantic. Just have a “video game writing” category and be done with it.

      • devlocke says:

        I think the distinction he’s making is between plotting and the use of language:

        Narrative design = the story is good.

        Writing = the story is told well.

        (I’m being really lazy there, so you’d have to actually be willing to not be a dick to accept those definitions, but if you’re willing to not be a dick, the distinction I’m making should be clear even if my language sucks (unless posting drunk at 8:30 in the morning is affecting my thinking more than I’m thinking that it is))

        We’re used to looking at both aspects as part of the same thing, because in traditional media, if one sucks, the other doesn’t make up for it – in traditional media, there isn’t any interactivity to distract us from the faults on either end of the narrative spectrum.

        But I honestly kind of think that “narrative design” in his (or her; I dunno) terminology is something that games have actually been pretty good at for a long time, while actual prose is something that games have totally sucked at, with a few rare exceptions, since time immemorial. So drawing a distinction, and saying that what this game is good at is creating a nuanced, engaging, and mature story, is useful.

    • Deecie says:

      (e: re: the sombrero kid) Why? Are screenplay writers not “writers”? How about the writers of plays, or radio serials, or anything else that doesn’t conform to the relatively recent medium of the short prose novel?

      Why should the extremely straightforward process of generating relatively compelling window dressing for the core work (the ‘game’ as such and the player’s interaction with its mechanics via a UI) be considered something special or unique?

      • Premium User Badge RaveTurned says:

        Games (or rather, “good” games) are all about player agency and choice, while traditional media of the type you list are by their nature prescriptive. Take a good look at that last word, it might contain your first clue about why “writing” may adequately cover story-telling for those media, but arguably not for games.

        Also, you seem to be implying that game mechanics and narrative are entirely separate beings (one being an excuse for the other’s existence). I’d be interested to see what you make of this episode of Extra Credits, arguing that narrative can be told through game mechanics alone.

        To me, the above would imply that writing (i.e. scripted work) is just one element of narrative when communicated through an interactive medium. Hence narrative design would be a more inclusive term for games looking to tell a story than simply “writing”, and would allow developers who experiment with different ways of conveying a narrative to be recognised for their efforts.

    • The Sombrero Kid says:

      it’s a separate discipline to screen writing, novel writing cereal box writing or any other type of writing because it’s not writing, it’s design, it’s design because it’s non linear. A good story in a game is a machine you interact with.

      Any game design which conforms to a definition of writing that can be encapsulated by traditional writing is bad by definition and isn’t worthy for consideration in any writing category of games awards, much like a screen play that conformed to the limitations of a novel would be an unworthy contender for a writing award in cinema.

      • njolnin says:

        It’s bad by definition? Really? Seems rather dogmatic and limiting. I’m glad I don’t share the same attitude.

      • MadMatty says:

        But, are games art?

        /trollface/

        that aside, this looks interesting, most definetly.

  4. Zanchito says:

    If it’s half as good as To the Moon, it’s a sure buy!

  5. Deecie says:

    Sorry, I don’t understand what any of this has to do with The Road. Is The Road being referenced just as a narrative that has a parent and child? What does that have to do with “emotion”, or the “emotions” in this game?

    • Lewis Denby says:

      Hey. :-)

      So there are two main plot threads in Richard & Alice, one of which is about a parent and child attempting to survive in a sort of apocalyptic world. There’s plenty of other narrative stuff going on that isn’t similar to The Road, but that thread definitely (and knowingly) has shades of that novel.

      Lewis

      • Doesn'tmeananything says:

        Will the emotion (what?) of Crime and Punishment remain in a game, where an old lady is murdered?

  6. Phantoon says:

    But is it art?

  7. Premium User Badge DrScuttles says:

    Looks very interesting. Towards the end of To The Moon a piece of grit suddenly phased into being and collided with my eye, producing a definitely non-emotional tear response. If Richard & Alice is on a similar level then I’m very, very interested indeed.

    • Skabooga says:

      Ah yes, the same thing happened to me. Those bothersome dirt particles.

  8. Creeping Death says:

    “Let’s keep the McCarthy references in check – the author’s extraordinarily powerful prose and exceptional poetic presence isn’t replicated here.”

    I thought the road was awfully written.. I couldn’t drag myself through to finish it.. Having loved a lot of films based on his books I’m left with the conclusion he has great ideas, he just can’t put them on paper well.

    This game seems interesting though, I’m always up for a post apocalyptic setting in my indie games. And thanks for the heads up regarding to the moon on gog, that would’ve slipped me by completely

    • Deecie says:

      McCarthy’s books – like most literature – have nothing to do with “ideas”. They’re a stylistic construction, and they only have value as that. This is why I’m having fun imagining how people are comparing McCarthy to an “emotional” XX-bit-styled videogame.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        There’s a parent and a child in it, therefore it’s the same thing.

        Also Creeping Death has about 30 seconds to convince me he’s a real person or I’m opening fire.

    • Bloodoflamb says:

      The Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees with your assessment of McCarthy’s writing.

    • GameCat says:

      The Road was awfully written? Oh my, wish I could suck at writing like McCarthy.

  9. Bloodoflamb says:

    “Let’s keep the McCarthy references in check – the author’s extraordinarily powerful prose and exceptional poetic presence isn’t replicated here.”

    So what you’re saying is that the writing isn’t great? How is this a good example of why there should be a category for best writing?

    To be honest, I cannot think of a single game off the top of my head with excellent writing and dialogue. Good? Yes. Excellent? No. There have been some great stories, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to great writing.

    • FhnuZoag says:

      I think he’s saying the writing isn’t as good as The Road.

    • Skabooga says:

      Grim Fandango, Flight of the Amazon Queen, Beneath a Steel Sky. I’m not sure what it says that adventure games are the only ones I can think of with excellent writing and dialogue, but, well, there it is.

      • w1n5t0n says:

        Adventure games tend to have the best writing because the story/dialogue is the main device for engaging the player, whereas in other genres the gameplay is the main reason you play the game.

  10. Tanneseph says:

    I’ve been lurking around here for a little over a month now, checking out the articles every day, and figured this article was a great example of why I want to thank you guys for writing about games. This is a sort of game that deserves to be watched and encouraged, and I feel confident that I wouldn’t have heard about it from my other outlets. I also appreciate the constructive criticism that keeps an article like this balanced. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you!

    (And yes, a thank you from Random Person can probably only mean so much, but I maintain that if we thanked and appreciated as much as we tend to complain on the internet – and in life! – everything would be -so- much more pleasant!)

  11. Premium User Badge Bluerps says:

    Interesting!
    If the rest of the game is not significantly worse than what is described here, this sounds like something I’d like to play.

  12. spelvin spugg says:

    Writing ain’t gameplay.

    These writing-heavy, pretentious overwrought navelgazes tend to suck heavily. And if you think they are well-written, that is stretching the term past absurdity.

    • Lewis Denby says:

      Hello, Mr. Spugg!

      I’m not sure where you got the idea that Richard & Alice is “pretentious” or even especially “writing-heavy”. It’s a point-and-click adventure game, and a fairly traditional one at that, albeit one that hopefully incorporates a few neat twists on the formula. We want to tell an interesting tale, definitely, but this isn’t a sort of pure-narrative experience like To the Moon (although I did love To the Moon).

      As for the quality of the writing – well, I hope we can prove you wrong. :-)