By John Walker on January 16th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
Do you want to be told a good story? That’s one of the purest pleasures of the adventure game – the embracing of the linear, pre-destined story that someone wants to tell you. While I often crave a divergent, dynamic and interactive game in which my choices have significance, there’s something wonderful about abandoning all of that, and being the agent that allows a story to be told.
So it was a couple of days ago that I cried out on Twitter asking for a new adventure to play. And via various responses, the creator of many superb games – Ben Chandler – linked me to his unavailable adventure, PISS. Created as part of a collection briefly available last Summer, those who missed it at the time haven’t been able to access it since. Fortunately, despite plans to sell it at a later date, Chandler has agreed to let us
link to the Dropbox containing the whole game, which you can grab now.
And you should. Because the name betrays nothing of what’s in this game. (In fact, that matter is neatly addressed by the game, as a simile within a simile by a man who deals in similes.) This is the story of Moira, a mercenary with a severe drink problem, desperate to ensure she keeps forgetting whatever it is that she’s forgotten. Haunted by dreams, and having lost track of her murderous past, she’s aimless and depressed, on the hunt for coin to buy more booze.
As you might expect, this of course means you’re headed on a journey of some self-discovery. Heading to collect your money from your most recent client, you find he’s betrayed you by dying, and taking his money with him. So things start off with an attempt to reclaim the coins, and spiral off into something far more complex shortly after.
PISS is primarily formed of conversations, which gives the game a significant interactive fiction vibe. There are puzzles too, there’s an inventory, but for the most part you’re chatting with the game’s other characters, occasionally running favours for them, and opening up your understanding of the situation as you go along. And it’s compelling.
While there are a few too many threads opened up that aren’t ever closed, the journey Moira goes on is a strong idea. And more importantly, the people in the world feel instantly interesting and individual. Chandler’s prose is clean and punchy, and characters quickly convey personalities that reach below the surface. Everything is carefully detailed, objects in the world receiving extended descriptions rather than dismissive statements of the obvious.
Then the artwork. If you’ve played any of Chandler’s games before, or indeed enjoyed the character animation in Dave Gilbert’s Blackwell games, you’ll know just how skilled he is at pixel art. Hand painted backgrounds are all gorgeous, and the characters display skill beyond what you’d see in the format’s heyday of the mid-90s.
I think what’s most important here is that I instantly cared about Moira, despite her immediate characteristics venturing close to cliché. It overcomes that, and it’s hard not to feel affection for this broken drunk who’s lost all hope. That she’s smart is helpful, but she’s also sympathetic, which is something that’s far too often forgotten when writing game protagonists. Well, sympathetic to some – willing to ruin the lives of those who’ve crossed her.
There’s one other element that needs to be mentioned. Unusually for adventure games, it has a sex scene. The set up to this, and the reason for its happening, are all great. The moment itself is perhaps a little cloying and over-written. The message it conveys – the intensity of the internal struggle Moira faces with her decision to detach herself from her emotions – is successfully delivered. But there are a few groans of the wrong sort in the process.
This aside, PISS is a really strong game, and a story well worth being told. I find myself wanting a director’s cut, one that elaborates on some of the characters’ stories that just fall aside, and tightens up the slightly unpolished final scenes. But this is a fantastic adventure, and if you grab it now, it’s also completely free. That’s well worth doing.