The second stop on our Recent Indie Game Kickstarters Whirlwind World Tour is Owlchemy Labs‘ Dyscourse: Survivors, Choose Wisely. Drawn as I was to Dyscourse’s unique graphical style and promise of meaningful choices in the context of surviving a plane crash on a desert island, I backed it for keeps and then proceeded to forget all about. Yes, that is ‘kind of my thing’, thank you very much. I just like surprises! I like surprises so much that I’ll voluntary forget about incoming games I’ve arranged myself, just so I can be pleasantly surprised when they show up. I like to think of these little occurrences as Past Jarenth’s gifts to Present Jarenth.
Anyway, returning our attention to the present: Dyscourse. It’s a game about crashing a plane on a deserted island, and then surviving on that island, quite probably involving some difficult and life-changing choices among the way. That’s… that’s really all I know about it. Which is fitting, in a way, if you think about it: what better way to experience a game about desperately trying to survive a totally unknown situation than with as little practical and thematic foreknowledge as possible? This way, whenever the character or characters I control express how much they don’t understand what’s going on, I’ll be able to empathize with them on a whole different level! I don’t know what’s going on in this weird and alien place either, video game characters. I don’t know either.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-high. Mechanical, medium-high.)
(Game source: Kickstarter backer.)
You can learn a lot about a game from studying the makeup of its opening menu screen. For instance, from Dyscourse’s menu, I can divine three things: this is a game that uses bright colours for contrast, this is a game that enjoys high-quality music support for everything you do, and this a game where the controls probably won’t extend beyond directional controls and an action key.
Dyscourse does not reward menu-diving. Graphical options don’t extend beyond resolution, full-screen, and a handful of ‘X level of quality’ preset bundles. Audio options are limited to ‘voice effects’, and two numbers for sound effects and music. Controls ‘options’ are essentially one sheet of paper.
The Extras menu doesn’t fare much better: I see Achievements (which just opens the Steam page), Credits (which imply that everyone who worked on this game is a scientist of some kind), and ‘Reset Data’. Which, why would I want to reset my data already, Dyscourse? I’ve only just started! I don’t even have data, as far as I know.
Nah, let’s just get this doomed airplane voyage underway already. Where did I leave my passport?
From the New Game menu, I learn that my character in Dyscourse is a 25-year-old woman of indeterminate origin called Rita. No, not the same Rita we all know and love. No, not that other Rita either. This Rita appears to be nothing of either sort: beyond her obvious obsession with coffee and her enjoyment of trouble-free air travel, I wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about her.
Alright, New Game! Two splash screens pop up. The first one re-explains the controls, again — there’s not a whole lot to learn here, game, I kinda had to understand how all of this works to be able to get here in the first place — and recommends that I wear headphones while playing. The second one…
I hit the Spacebar. The screen goes black. I hear the tell-tale sound of an airplane in rapid descent, then a big splash, then the sounds of tearing and crumpling metal. And then…
The screen fades in Rita, lying shut-eyed in the sand. Around her I see grass, trees, sand, and various parts that once made up one complete airplane.
Rita opens her eyes and sits upright. She quickly rattles off a short string of pseudo-language that is best described as ‘basically Simlish‘. Rita, I don’t… I don’t understand what you’re saying. Like, at all. Are you feeling alright? Did you hit your head on the way down?
Luckily, a helpful speech bubble intervenes. Oh, now I get it! Rita just has a little headache.
Rita, a headache should be the least of your worries right now. Don’t you understand the situation you’re currently in?
…no, it turns out she actually doesn’t. It’s not until after getting up and commenting on her general soreness that Rita notices that something is amiss.
Not one for shell-shock, apparently, Rita quickly decides to investigate her surroundings. Using either the arrow keys or WASD, I can steer her around the limited stretch of sand that is my new home. The screen scrolls left and right to accommodate my explorations, but not very far. And whenever Rita walks past something of interest, a little eye or hand icon indicates I could consider pressing Spacebar for interaction.
“That’s my seat, good old 21C” Rita remarks of the seat she woke up next to. “Good thing I wasn’t in this seat”, she comments on another seat close by, this one mangled beyond repair and half-buried in the sand. And of the frying pan conspicuously lying around, she…
Hold on. Why is there a frying pan lying nearby? Was this thing on the plane?
Suddenly, noises from the right! Another burble of Simlish, this in a higher, more frantic pitch. And a differently-coloured speech bubble to boot. “They’re closing in on us!”
I rush over to investigate. This time, at Dyscourse’s behest, the screen does shift all the way to the right.
One screen over, I find… two men, surrounded by crabs. Angry, chittering crabs. “They’re calling for backup!”, one yells. “We’re totally surrounded!” agrees the other.
As one, they turn to me. “Hey, lady!” yells the cigarette-smoking redhead earlier identified as Steve. “Now might be a good time to help us!”
After passing up on the opportunity to mock them for being afraid of tiny baby crabs, I rush in. Both Steve and Teddy clamour for my attention. Ooh, a moral choice! It’s difficult for a second, but Steve seems like the cooler dude — just look at his casual cigarette! — and is therefore more worthy of immediate rescue.
What to do, what to do… I attempt to scare the crabs off by waving my frying pan in a threatening manner. This… works, surprisingly enough! The crabs all back away from Steve…
…and regroup on Teddy, who — really completely overwhelmed, now — quickly finds his legs the target of many a big-meaty-claw mark.
Steve and Teddy proceed to escort me to the other survivors: the husband-and-wife couple of George and Jolene, and Garrett, Video Games Extraordinaire, whose embarrassing handle is ‘Nebulord90’. The five of them — six now, including me — represent the only survivors of ‘Dysastair Flight 404’.
Apparently, I’ve been out for a little longer than most of the other survivors. They’ve built a nifty fireplace and meeting spot after the crash, pulled up a rudimentary night shelter, and even scavenged the airplane wreckage for food! Sure, all they found were a couple of airline pretzels, but any food’s better than nothing. And hey, at the very least, prepackaged airline food doesn’t go bad for like, centuries. More organic ‘real food’ would spoil pretty quickly on this deserted desert island, but as far these pretzels go, we have relatively little to worry about.
Just then, a giant angry wild boar runs up to our campfire. It snorts and grunts, grabs two bags of pretzels, and runs away again.
Up until this point, Rita-me has had very little say in anything that happened. I was allowed to explore the airplane crash, but I’m pretty sure I only proceeded because I picked up the frying pan. I could choose who to rescue from crabs first, but Steve and Teddy brought me to camp regardless. And I was allowed to be nice or cranky to Jolene just now… no idea if that influenced anything, but I guess I’ll find out.
But after the boar makes off with our pretzels, the survivor-group splits in two. Jolene and George want me to join them in hunting the boar and retrieving our pretzels. Teddy, Steve and Garrett would prefer for all of us to stay at the camp, defending our remaining supplies from whatever else might lurk out there. What do I do?
At this point, the success or failure of this expedition has been put entirely in my hands. The boar hasn’t noticed us… I have a frying pan, Jolene has a giant flash camera, and George has a broken fishing pole. Let’s see…
Okay, we’ll do this. George, throw your fishing pole. Yes, George, I know it’s weighted weirdly, just throw it. I want you to get its attention. Okay, good, now it’s charging you. Jolene, stun it with the flash from your camera! Alright, nice, that worked out. And finally, me, smack it to death with your-my cast-iron frying pan!
Jolene and George take the pretzels back to camp. I scout around a little more, and find a strange Dysastair clipboard that implies… well, some really bad things about the quality of their mechanical upkeep. Then, I return too.
Not all’s well back at base camp: while the three of us were out, other boars apparently stole the remaining pretzels. The Teddy-Steve-Garrett gang went into hiding on my behest — wonder what would’ve happened if I told them to stand and fight? Neither part of the group is too happy with the other’s actions at this point. But you know what could help solve that rift? Fresh boar bacon, roasted over an open fire!
Okay, I mean, sure. Apparently the boar meat is totally infected with bugs and worms. Already? We only killed it ten minutes ago. What the hell kind of boar?… Still, meat is meat, and food is food. Jolene, George and I tuck into nature’s bounty, while Teddy, Steve and Garrett decide they’d rather not eat maggot-riddled disease meat.
Grabbing a torch, the group shows me to the shelter George built. Room for six people, how convenient. Because it’s late and ‘my torch is running low’ — never you mind that I could totally get a new one from the fire roaring a few meters away — I find I have time to talk to three people before going to bed. So I chat to George and Jolene about their marriage — which is perfect in any way and not showing any obvious seams — and to Steve about his general negative outlook on life. Then, it’s time for bed.
And so ends the first day.
I wake up the second day not feeling all that well. George and Jolene are looking a little green around the edges, too. I don’t know if this game has ‘right and wrong’ choices, per se? But I feel as though eating that boar may have been the wrong choice. Steve, Teddy and Garrett don’t seem too perturbed for not having eaten anything, anyway.
In the morning’s campfire debate, the group’s priorities split again. Teddy wants to go build an SOS signal on the beach. Steve and Jolene feel it’d be prudent to check out the airplane wreckage for food and other usable stuff. And Garrett and George plan to go look for fresh drinking water. Choose your destiny, Rita.
Sick as I am, signal-building is right out. I opt to help hunt for water, reasoning that supplies are nice, but not dying of thirst is nicer.
‘Finding water’ turns out to involve going to another screen north of the camp, and looking for the right clue. Animal tracks, in this case. There’s also a whole mess of things to look at, plants and cracks and rocks and whatnot, and I have an opportunity to talk to the equally-sick George. But the game doesn’t progress in any sense until I hit on the one exit path. Which, you know, is fair. I don’t think anyone would want to play ‘Dyscourse: Died Of Dehydration On Day 2’ edition.
Success! George, Garrett and I find a pool of fresh water.
As the only healthy person in the group, it falls on Garrett to fill up a few airline bottles with water. And because of that, he quickly ceases being the only healthy person in the group: Garrett gets covered in leeches, freaks out, runs around, and hits his head hard on a nearby tree. Damnit, this island.
Back at the fire, we take stock of the day. The water is welcome, but beyond that, we didn’t accomplish all that much: Teddy opted to not work on his SOS alone, and while Steve and Jolene found ‘something interesting’ over at the wreckage, they’d need an extra hand in order to get to it. In other words, both groups failed because I wasn’t there. I wonder if George and Garrett would’ve messed up with me as well? Probably, if we’re being honest.
And the six of us honestly aren’t doing so hot. George, Jolene and I are sick, Garrett is shook up from that bump on his head, and Teddy’s legs still haven’t healed. I wonder how long it’ll take before one of us bites off more than they can chew.
Another torch, another three chats, another bedtime.
I awaken on day three with renewed purpose. It’s so clear to me now.
Steve. Steve is our best hope for survival. All of us have gotten sick or injured so far but him. But Steve has shrugged off everything this island has thrown at us. Clearly, he’s the Chosen One. Plus, his name is Steve. I love all Steves, everywhere.
On day three, the two choices I didn’t take earlier open up before me again. Build a signal with Teddy, or scavenge the plane with Steve and Jolene. I opt for the latter, obviously. Not only do I want to see what ‘interesting things’ the two of them uncovered earlier, but sticking with Steve is my best bet of keeping both him and myself alive. What if I hung out with Teddy, and something happened to Steve? I’d never forgive myself.
Do you hear me, island? I support Steve 100%. Steve will make it. I will get Steve off this god-forsaken desert rock if it’s the last thing I ever do.