Monday, August 13, 2018

I AM INNOCENT: Casual Gaming Gets Skinned

Full disclosure: I did not play the entirety of I Am Innocent. I cannot speak for the ending of the storyline of the game; however, I played enough chapters of the game's various functions that I have a pretty damn good idea of what the experience would be like in the long term. While I admit up front that I cannot judge the game's plot based on its ending, I do feel that the fact that I did not finish it is a pertinent point in this piece for a variety of reasons.

First, though. What the hell am I on about.

I Am Innocent is a smartphone game I saw advertised on Instagram. It was free with in-app transactions, which usually means pay-to-win or pay-to-work-less-hard. Even with that proviso in my face, I was intrigued. It was a real-time story in which you received clues, hacked information, and solved puzzles to unravel a story and save a life.

My jam.

So, the concept. You're dicking around on your phone and chatting with people. You have a couple characters established up front: your ex Stella, who you're still on good terms with, and your hacker buddy Eric, who can make Internet magic happen and occasionally throw you some in-game cryptocurrency. You get a little while to chat with them and choose between responses to affect what sort of terms you're on with them.

Then the mysterious untraceable text comes in.

You talk to two unknowns: a man being held captive, and his captor. You start off knowing nothing about either of them — only that you will decide whether the captive lives or dies. Fortunately you have friends with skill sets, so you can set about figuring out what the hell is going on. And then... the real game begins.

Yeah, basically I Am Innocent is a mash-up between a real-time mystery game and a casual color-matching puzzle. And that's... fine. It's probably a two-way solution. It gave the creator of the casual game a way to get it out there, and it's a way to make hacking more interesting in the context of the app itself.

You progress the plot via this "hacking" method: earning stars to unlock new texts from the various characters, and solving all the puzzles in a set to gain info for Eric so he can help you along. Your cryptocurrency (which you can also buy with real money) is, as it turns out, what you use for extra turns and hacks in the game itself. So those fictional pennies get very dear very quickly.

The story of the game, as far as I got, is pretty interesting. There's a lot more to you (a nondescript adult male) that you learn as you go along. You lost your little sister nine years ago, and it may be something to do with the desperate captive. Or it may not. Depending on who you believe. The loss has affected your relationships with pretty much everyone you know, unsurprisingly, and part of the game involves repairing these relationships via text.

I'm divided when it comes to the storytelling. On the one hand, there's definitely some intriguing stuff going on here. On the other, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. Many of the conversations involve you and your conversation partner reminding each other in long expository style of things you both already know. And while I understand that we as the player need story and the texting conceit deprives us of prose... there are ways to create informative dialogue that don't force everyone to be Mr. Exposition.

For this reason, the tenser moments play out better and are more immersive. It's when we step backwards into needing to learn about your sister, or why you and Stella broke up, that it gets stilted.

(As an aside, the first conversation with your father is rough... he messages you out of nowhere basically going "Where did I go wrong with you?" and a few more messages in a maudlin tune begins to play over your headsets as you text back and forth. That was... a choice.)

Honestly... I uninstalled the app because my frustration with the puzzle game was not tempered by my engagement with the story. The concept intrigued me, and the structure of the app is awesome, but the flow (or lack thereof) of the dialogue sort of put a damper on my engagement. How can I put it... this feels like the first draft of a game I'd love to play the final version of.

Others may feel differently about it and 1) not be bothered by the dialogue, 2) be less crap at puzzle games or at least more ready to put up money to be good at them. The photos used are gorgeous, and the creators know it: the photographer is credited and linked in the app, and for good reason.

It's clear that, much like the team solving the mystery within the story of I Am Innocent, there's a multifaceted team behind the creation of it. And it's so very "almost there" for me that I'm certain it will be a hit for others. But I want to see this group at the top of their game. I don't feel like this is it. But I think they have it in them.

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