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Wot I Think: The Yawhg

Ten-minute fairy tale

The Yawhg is a one-to-four player adventure game, by Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll, in which you try to direct the fate of characters plucked straight from a fairy tale that never was. It's been out for almost a year, and also arrived on Steam yesterday.

In six weeks, something terrible is going to happen. The characters you play as don't know this, but you do. And so you guide their lives, and their destinies, with that knowledge, trying to build them into people who can make the most of what's left after the disaster. All of this has happened before, and will happen again. But hey, maybe you'll be a doctor rather than the town drunk this time around.

It's Choose Your Own Adventure as an open-ended fairy tale, where the enjoyment stems more from seeing what the game's random event generator chucks at you than from trying to min-max your way to a happier ending. Heading off to chop wood in the forest in one turn, for istance, might result in a deadly tussle with a wolf and the loss of a few points from your Physique stat. Come the next turn, the whole werewolf thing happens and you wind up trashing whichever location you're currently in. Or perhaps you never ran into the wolf - instead you were approached by a pack of talking rats who wanted your input on their upcoming election.

The ideal situation there, perhaps, is that you turn to the people you're with and hoot 'oh wow, I got the talking rats! Who do I choose to be their leader, the warlike one or the wise one?' and the other one-to-three players all chime in with suggestions, as everyone ambiently co-operates to create a playful, meandering, frequently silly but sometimes bittersweet story. It's a patchwork fairy tale, different every time.

I must avoid spoilers of course, although this is an odd situation as the reckoning in question is core to what's basically a ten-minute game, played repeatedly. I.e. if you choose to play The Yawhg, you'll encounter this event within less time than it takes to read this article. But there is a reckoning, and what you've done and been subjected to, and what stats you've built (or lost) in the preceding six weeks/turns affects what happens afterwards.

Now just wait a cockameme minute. Did I mention multiplayer? I did, yes. But I have not really played The Yawhg as a multiplayer game. Only the once, and that was with someone who couldn't see the point. It is a singleplayer game too, but I can see, with only a slight degree of sadness that I've not been able to experience it as such, that it would come that much more alive if played in company. There's no networking - two to four people sit around a screen/keyboard/gamepad and direct/narrate a fantastical story together, while very gently competing to see who winds up with the 'best' character. As a single player game, the lone Billy No Mates (hello!) can control a minimum of two and a maximum of four characters, free to pursue harmony or horror as he or she sees fit.

This creates two very different possible experiences. Played alone, I had an introspective experience, affected by the spectral folk soundtrack and the alternating optimism and tragedy of the random events. Then I saw this video, and how different the Yawhg is as a call-and-response multiplayer game, everyone bouncing off each other and hooting in glee/horror at each twist:

Even aside from the fact that the people in that video are rather more, er, demonstrative than I, the concept of someone reading the lines aloud totally transforms the game - taking it away from the stat-chasing and the worrying about consequences, and into an amateur dramatics party game. As a single player game, the Yawhg has an extremely limited lifespan - even with the random acts of cruelty or fortune, it's not exactly challenging to reach a 'good' ending. Busting it out with a few semi-inebriated friends will be a different matter: 'oh my god, you got the magical sores!' or 'you bastard, you've trashed the magic tower!' and so forth.

Though, of course, there's the local multiplayer game curse of not too many people realistically having their PCs hooked up to a big TV, and everyone clustering around a monitor making for an awkward form of socialising (I know, I know - an HDMI cable is cheap and easy, but that doesn't mean it happens too often). There's so much invention happening in local multiplayer, but by God games that do it are massively restricting their audience for this reason.

Me, I've experienced it as sombre, pretty, genteel thing with a clear edge of optimism even as everything turns to hell. It's a game where the hand drawn art and ethereal, acoustic music are of at least equal importance to the unashamedly simple 'game' element, working together to build an affecting fairy tale feel, a strong sense of strange place from long ago, protecting The Yawhg from being simply a roulette wheel. I pictured a place, I pictured myself there - quaffing potions of unknown origin, brawling with drunkards, talking ghosts out of haunting hospitals, driving a lute player into despair, growing a magic beanstalk... And then trying to be something, anything, in the wake of the Yawhg. There might not be much to it, but it got me. For a time, at least.

But if the prettiness doesn't grab you, I'm not sure what I can tell you here. Take away all surface, and what you're left with is a very simple and repetitive game that plucks an image and a handful of text from its fairly slim database every time you choose an option.

Or, should I say, take away all heart and soul, and what you're left with is a very simple and repetitive game that plucks an image and a handful of text from its fairly slim database every time you choose an option.

But you do have heart and soul, don't you?

The Yawhg is out now.

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