Monday, December 10, 2012

Tiny Soccer Manager Stories, by Pierre Corbinais

My very strong favorite of the TIGSource "Sports" compo is Pierre Corbinais' "Tiny Soccer Manager Stories." It's a 20 minute-ish puzzle game made in Adventure Game Studio that tasks you as a substitute junior high soccer coach, and your job is to balance the two teams to make sure everyone plays, even the kids who suck.

(INSTALLATION NOTE: To get this to run on my Win7x64 system, I had to change the settings to "Direct3D 9" windowed mode. Try that if it doesn't work for you.)
(HINT: If a particular puzzle gives you a lot of trouble, use the "Skip Puzzle" option in the menu. The game doesn't penalize you or limit you at all.)

I've whined before about how we should narrativize the sports genre, and I think TSMS does some really great things with game narrative using this roster mechanic -- it isn't the first sports mechanic that comes to mind, which just makes this all the more refreshing and novel. Here's why this game is awesome: (SPOILER ALERT)
  • Optimal solving strategies (outside of brute forcing, which you'll often rely upon) involve memorizing each NPC's stats bonus triggers: some kids have better stats depending on # of smiling kids on their team, or if their crush is on the other team, etc. And the process of puzzle-solving actually requires you to memorize their individual characterization -- that is, playing this game requires you to understand the narrative. Very smart.
  • Later in the game, some kids start hating or dating each other. They will automatically switch teams depending on their relationships; this has the added benefit of simplifying the endgame puzzles with fewer possible permutations so the game goes faster, but it also reminds you that kids are ultimately out of an adult's control. When was the last time a chess piece or a zergling refused to obey your command?
  • Very subtle characterization of the player character. All the in-game text is colored by your character's voice, like an internal monologue. There are bits where he's happy or upset for certain kids, he doesn't really understand girls that well and he's a little sexist, and one running joke involves a certain kid being totally unknowable with random stats triggers. (Random numbers as a narrative device? Great!) In general, the character is pretty protective, which should be very familiar to anyone who's worked with kids before. Are these kids even going to remember you a month after you leave? Did you end up helping them or messing them up? He really does sound like some random well-meaning dad, which is a really novel voice to have in a game.
  • The ending sequence is very fitting: all the NPCs line-up, and you click on each one to say goodbye to them, using a similar interface from the rest of the game. As you say your goodbyes, each kid's Week 12 character sprite reverts back to their Week 1 character sprite, and you realize how much they've changed over time with all their individual moments and personalities. It's sentimental, but done tastefully -- your character is actually imagining the goodbye sequence in his head, because it'd be awkward if he actually gave them the earnest life advice that he wanted to give them. And why should a substitute soccer coach "care" so much about kids, isn't that creepy? He's not their parents. (Again, if you've ever worked with kids and actually formed a bond with them, this is a familiar feeling.)
There are a few typos and awkward disfluencies, since English is Pierre's second language, but it reads very naturally anyway, better than what most native English speakers can supposedly write. Overall, it's still a masterful use of mechanics / puzzles to double as narrative devices.

Bon travail, Pierre! Good luck in the voting.