This week we're going a little outside the comfort zone and trying a completely new genre for which I don't believe I am the target audience at all. But don't worry, I've enlisted the help of my very own captive audience - my lovely Sara - in giving me her opinion of the game on her own playthrough. I was also very impressed at the mechanics I found in a genre I'd largely discounted without first giving it a look.
The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne is an interactive story in which you make decisions for a college student who suffers from social anxiety. Sam, the namesake, quests to make some oatmeal, and the only obstacle between her and a disappointing dinner is her own fear of others. It's free, and as usual, I recommend you try it before reading the rest of this if you want to remain spoiler-free.
Being an interactive story, you don't get much interaction - click to advance text boxes, occasionally make a choice that's presented on the screen. From seeing four playthroughs, there wasn't much variance in the different choices, and the story was pretty linear no matter what you did. There were failure states, and too many incorrect choices would make you start over from an earlier part of the story.
That's, honestly, all I thought these games were. I was surprised, and impressed, to see that there was much more on offer here.
Sam's social anxiety is expressed a number of ways in the game, from isolating her from the player by never showing her face to the constant uncertainty in her thoughts, but the most effective were the subtle mechanics.
Waiting. Spending time is a powerful thing, and TAEAoSB effectively spends it with a simple, but brilliant, waiting mechanic. At a couple points in the story you must simply wait - for water to boil, for a microwave, for oatmeal to..cook (this takes place in England, do they call "oatmeal" what I call "oatmeal?"). While waiting a countdown is shown on the screen, and you don't have to do anything...but I always clicked again, prompting Sam to pipe up with some worry. Waiting, alone, quietly, makes us nervous, and this captures it wonderfully, sticking us uncomfortably in our own head so we can be closer to Sam's.
While walking down a short hallway, TAEAoSB plays on the core of the genre by bombarding us with a long slew of dialog boxes, advancing the background one single tiny step each time they are advanced. This has the effect of making the hallway seem very, very long, while if you pay attention only a short distance is travelled. Sam dreads walking down the hall for fear of encountering another student, and by using the core mechanic of the genre, a fairly uninteresting advancement of dialog boxes, the impossible amount of time between A and B is conveyed to the player. It's quite clever.
However, the most effective mechanic is failure. On your first playthrough you'll almost certainly fail. This is your last chance to not have this spoiled. When first presented with the ability to leave your dorm..er..flat, you are given two choices - "Go Outside" or "Wait Here Longer." If you just go you advance the story, but you also forget your keys and lock yourself out of your room, something you won't notice until you reach nearly the end of the story. At first, this frustrated me, but on my next playthrough I found myself forced to make ever singe fearful choice just in case something awful would happen again - it worked. By failing me the first time for going into it as myself instead of as anxiety-riddled Sam, the game forced me to really get into character in the next run. It's a brave move to force the player to replay most of your (admittedly short) game, but it was a good call.
The takeaway this time is as the old adage says - don't knock it before you try it. I had been dismissing interactive stories since I first saw them, but having tried one I have more respect. There was a lot here, and while this may be an example of a good one, I feel like this genre has a lot of potential to give an impactful experience. I don't know that it's my thing, but I'm sure we'll cross paths again.
The most important lesson here is using the core mechanics of a genre to convey you message. Advancing dialog boxes seems like the least interactive thing in a game, but here they were used to create a tension that perfectly suited the atmosphere of the game, and indeed enriched the experience. This is what good design looks like, and I hope to find such thematic uses for core mechanics in my own works.
Sam's waiting mechanic also demonstrates respectful use of player time. Waiting in a game sucks, and it's very easy to do wrong, but none of Sam's waiting sections are frustrating. They are long enough to serve their purpose without being so long as to waste your time. I'm sure it took a lot of trail and error to reach the sweet spot, but every time I see it I'm reminded of how important it is to get right.