Who Among Us is a web story with some choice-based interaction, coded in Twine/Twee. It is written by Tia Orisney, who also entered Blood on the Heather into the comp. The story is inspired by Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, And Then There Were None. (I have to pause to recommend And Then There Were None for a moment. It was the first Agatha Christie mystery I ever read, and remains one of my favorites.)
I found Who Among Us much more to my liking than Blood on the Heather, though it also had some issues. I’ll discuss in more detail after the cut. You can find the piece itself here.
In Who Among Us, you are some kind of crook (just what the crime was is left a bit vague) who, after the death of your partner, are traveling back to the remote Russian astronomical observatory where you buried the loot. When you arrive there, however, you find a lot of other people there as well, all slightly confused about who invited them to this desolate abandoned observatory in the dead of the Russian winter. (“In the dead of the Russian winter” is a sentence that rarely appears in stories that end with all the characters living happily ever after, so they really should have known better.) Then people start mysteriously dying. Who’s behind it? Can you escape with your life – and the money?
The overall plot wasn’t bad, and the author did a good job of building suspense. There were a smattering of typos, some character actions that felt under-motivated, and a few illogical moments, but it was a decent story. (The illogical thing that stuck out the most to me is that this remote observatory up in the mountains has a planetarium. While these are both things that are about the night sky, the first is a building experts use for study while the second is a building used to educate non-experts. I’ve been to museums that had both, but an observatory far from civilization would not have a planetarium any more than a remote paleontological dig would have a museum.) I also appreciated that, although I know And Then There Were None inside and out, Who Among Us was loosely-enough based on it that the plot wasn’t spoiled at all.
I did feel that this story lacked in interactivity, however. It wasn’t absent – there were a few good examples, which I’ll mention in a moment – but it was too minimal. Around three-quarters of the pages had only the equivalent of a “continue” link at the bottom, allowing my character just one option to progress. This didn’t feel particularly more interactive than turning pages in a paperback book does.
Of the points in the story where I was presented with choices, they often felt very low-stakes, like deciding which of several total strangers to talk with first, or how to troubleshoot a faulty projector. To make it worse, in a number of these cases, I was forced to go through all of the choices one-by-one anyway. In the case of the projector, I was given three options for things to try, like smacking it on the side. When my first choice didn’t fix it, the only option presented to me was the second choice on the list, then the third one.
I paused in my playthrough for a bit to re-watch some episodes of the Penny Arcade web show Extra Credits, which examines games and game design, because I remembered they had made some points that were relevant to my thoughts. The following summed them up best, from the episode “The Feeling of Agency”:
A choice is meaningful when the decision-making process isn’t arbitrary, when the player understands the choice they’re making and has some system to weigh their options… Additionally, for it to be a meaningful choice, the player has to believe that what they choose will lead to different results.
Aside from a few places, such as when I had to decide who to stick with when the group split up to search for clues (again, characters, always a bad move!) and at the very end of the piece, my choices usually felt arbitrary and/or inconsequential.
Given the size of the piece, I can understand that the idea of inserting more branching would be overwhelming, and I’m not actually suggesting that as a reasonable option. However, the key is that not all choices do have to lead to different results as long as the player believes that they will. Another Extra Credits, “The Illusion of Choice,” points out that it’s not that players hate it when games present illusory choices: “What you hate is when you notice that they’re doing that to you in a game.” Forcing the player to take the second option immediately after she tries the first one definitely makes her notice it. If, instead, all three of the projector-fixing choices had led to a separate bit of text describing how I had successfully made the projector work, then funneled me back into the main story, I wouldn’t have noticed. I would have just assumed that I’d gotten lucky or been clever about projectors.
The other thing that would have helped would have been to just shorten the text in places. Cutting extraneous descriptions could have eliminated some of the long runs of single-option “choices” at the ends of pages. A major part of editing is trimming out the unnecessary. As Mark Twain did not say, “I made this longer because I have not had time to make it shorter.” I rather wish that T. Orisney had entered only one piece into the competition, but had spent the leftover time editing and refining. I personally would have favored this work over the other, but I think either would have wound up stronger for the extra attention.
In the tradition of unrelated last thoughts, I’ll end with this: The text was displayed in white on a black background, which started to really drive me crazy after about ten pages. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find white-on-black very difficult to read, at least in paragraph form. My eyes started to ache. It feels nit-picky to complain about something like font color, but it had such a negative impact on my experience that I almost stopped playing until I remembered that there’s a way to invert the colors on my computer screen.
This has become quite a long review, especially since I started at bedtime. I apologize; I haven’t the time to make it shorter.