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.