Fog of Unrequited Love

Welcome back boys and girls. This week at Player Elimination, we’re talking love. Take Kanye’s prescient advice and holla – “we want prenup!”

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Man, I love games that try to do something unique. Some would call me a sucker. Designs like The Grizzled and The Mushroom Eaters dig into my brain and wrap their claws around soft tissue, refusing to be dislodged. This is why I had all the hope for Fog of Love to burrow down into the most imaginative parts of my cerebrum. But the magic never happened. Like the most predictable of rom-coms, it doesn’t manage to break through or achieve greatness.

Yet just like Jake Gyllenhaal, it doesn’t know how to quit us. This relationship simulator is awash with interesting quirks and details. The setup of a two player game with a couple trying to feel out their conjoined existence is endearing. As cards are played and scenes unfold, the simultaneous answering of questions manufactures engaging moments laced with a bit of drama as you explore unknown territory.

That concept of ‘relationship simulator’ is pretty kooky and something I can totally get behind. On paper it’s pure potential, able to fork off into existential discovery or skip about in lighter social reverie. Newcomers approaching the game have no idea what to expect, and that’s wonderful.

It even starts off with a fastball. There’s this quaint character generation system that parrots aspects of the tabletop RPG genre. You’ll get an interesting and sometimes humorous career such as a florist or a dancer. You pick several personality traits which function as hidden goals, offering guideposts for play and directing your decisions. It’s fantastic in its simplicity as well as its depth of what it accomplishes to set the stage.

Sometimes it can be very odd. When you’re saddled with a trait like ‘wears cheap jewelry’ you’ll immediately form a preconceived notion. We’re used to feeling exaltation and excitement due to our barbarian’s 18 strength or thief’s 17 dexterity. When we’re offered a personality that we connect to primarily through pity, it can be bewildering and uncomfortable. And that’s great as it challenges our personal character and naturally questions our feelings. These difficult compositions can help cement a tender relationship with not only our in-game extension but the design itself.

20180222_165711An insurance agent with a facial scar, old cell phone, and odd socks walks into a bar…

Unfortunately our relationship begins to show cracks early. Right from the get-go you’re humming along and energized, maybe even butterflies buzzing back and forth against the walls of your stomach, and you begin to embody this fresh-off-the-boat personality. You want to explore the budding couple and engage in those roleplaying elements that are presented so succinctly yet effectively.

Then those pesky questionnaires start to pop up. Each scene presents you with a four option multiple-choice question that both participants answer privately. As hinted at previously, this feels really spectacular at times. You want to lean into the RPG qualities of the design and explore two human beings attempting to find their way.

When making crucial decisions in these moments, which is what the majority of the game consists of, you really want to approach the experience from an emotional angle. Relationships are messy, unpredictable things and you often have to take a deep breath and close your eyes as you leap. The far away outcome of these life defining moments is never known. Uncertainty eating away at our everyday life is a common occurrence and what defines our short little existence. Fog of Love rarely feels this way. More often, you’re responding to those pop quizzes from a strategic vector as you desire a specific mechanical outcome.

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With the scene set and the trip to Ikea mid-occurrence, you’re less concerned about what Barry the electrician is actually feeling and more focused on raising your discipline or sensitivity, as well as your personal satisfaction. The mechanisms are bare and fallout from the decision process so stark and cold that it saps the emotional strength at nearly every turn.

By presenting such a strong focus on the defined results, Fog of Love loses its way just as soon as its begun. It struggles under its goals of coupling roleplaying with a strategic Euro-style design, an uroboros devouring itself as both ends meet. These two vectors possess such disparate design goals and philosophies that reconciling the two is impossible, and this game never quite manages the impossible.

To be fair, the issue is partially alleviated in later scenarios. By introducing the ability for the relationship to dissolve, there’s a shift to mechanically nurturing your opponent’s goals. That aspect of cooperation and thoughtlessness can certainly exist without this prompt, but this is usually adopted outside the bounds of your incentives and for pure narrative or emotional reasons. Ideally, the game would nurture those emotional proclivities instead of hampering them. Some of the evolving mechanisms and scenarios make it halfway, but they never supplant that sterile calculating base completely. While you will have moments of concern for your partner and perhaps struggle with indecision, the majority of play is still framed around those individual needs and accomplishing them.

20180222_165646Save the drama for your momma

Tone is also problematic. The game wants to see-saw between moments of smirking comedy and dramatic impact. This dichotomy is fragile at times as it can feel like Will Ferrell being directed by Terrence Malick. While this variance of atmosphere can lead to some of the strongest flashes of roleplaying, it can also undercut the emotional depth and pull you out of the flick in the midst of your engagement.

Ok, let’s wax philosophical for a second.

There’s a nagging feeling that the gamification of love is folly. By laying down strict goals and measurements, Fog of Love can’t help but judge your character – by proxy you – and their success in pursuing a very nebulous and subjective state. I certainly think the attempt is noble and at times impressive, but the impact and emotional characterization leads down a path that jails creativity and feels oppressive.

This can also be an experience that melds in uncomfortable ways with the outside world. The sheer possibility of this occurring sounds enticing, and it’s something I regularly praise in a design when it’s able to affect us on a greater level, however a couple with a troubled relationship may find their unresolved issues weaving into the play-space. I’d like to think that this can give way to resolution and a deeper sense of affection, but this is a subject that is extraordinarily tricky and walks upon dangerous ground. Combine this fragility with that gamification aspect, and you have an exercise which can offer mixed messages with a judgmental tenor. Let’s just say there’s a reason a relationship therapist charges $100 a session and Fog of Love retails for $50 at Wal-Mart online.

Despite this flurry of criticism, there’s quite a bit of turmoil and conflict raging within my mind. Fog of Love does present moments of profundity as you and a spouse perhaps deepen your understanding or stumble upon new realizations. These moments are special. In those brief glimpses this game achieves a status of art that is highly commendable. These experiences end up justifying the design at a base level, earning its time for at least a couple of plays.

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It’s also obviously lovingly crafted. The presentation is clean and crisp. The components are fantastic from the solid chips you can’t help but play with nervously, to the unveiling of scenarios through sealed decks of CCG-like boosters. Hush Hush productions and designer Jacob Jaskov come ever so close to presenting the real deal.

While the core of Fog of Love is singularly flawed, this is a design I’d recommend be experienced. Its deficiency is not in failing to present an interesting game, but in taking a leap of insight and failing to stick the landing.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.

A Review Philosophy

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Hello!

Some of you may know me as that long-winded fellow who loves everything he reviews.

Well, yes. I mean, no. How dare you.

My name is Charlie. I write for many outlets, mostly because I’m vain and desperately hoping for some level of higher success as I push my games writing resume to grow every which way it can. As of this moment I contribute at least semi-regularly to Ars Technica, Geek & Sundry, The Review Corner, and Tabletop Gaming. I’d love to expand that and have my name published on Polygon, Kotaku, and even tattooed on someone’s nether-regions some day. We all have hopes and dreams.

One of the few benefits of working in print is that these places all pay. They’re professional outlets and that chunk of money which ranges from ‘hey, McDonalds is on them tonight’ to ‘this hobby is self-sustaining’, well, it’s a real thing and it’s swell. Which is great, because you don’t want to see me awkwardly positioned between a shelf of games and the best Amazon reviewed cheapo camera.

But everything’s not peaches and cream. Editors, style guides, and mission statements are great, for the most part. Player Elimination is for that other part.

At times it can feel as though you’re hamstrung, not able to write a specific way or in a specific style. It can feel as though you’re trying to speak with a mouthful of sand, perhaps trying to rain glorious syncopated beats from the heavens and someone’s telling you to use your inside voice.

Don’t read me wrong – I appreciate each and every place I write for. I put a lot of work into my pieces and my editors are all much smarter people than I could ever hope to be. But a chicken’s a chicken and it’d rather be free range than all cooped up.

So I’ve decided to do some writing for myself. And for you.

This here is a proclamation to deliver content at Player Elimination every single week. An article that may be some kind of review (although not a “review” review), maybe just some ramblings on a table top subject, perhaps just a bit of news. Part of the fun is in seeing your child grow in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

Why ‘Player Elimination’?

Player elimination, the mechanism, is a sticky subject. Antiquated as a dinosaur, some say. Like any mechanism, I believe it can be properly implemented and it has its own special time and place. To some degree, they also don’t make ’em like they used to.

This weekly column will tackle sticky subjects. I may be old and dated but I have a place dammit, and it’s here, rambling, like a man that’s mad.

It’s also the only name that wasn’t already taken.

So Player Elimination it is. Anything is better than another brand with meeple in the title. Ugh.

The nebbish ideology.

So let’s get real for a moment. For the first post of this weekly editorial I want to take an introspective glare at the philosophy behind my writing. I want you to understand how I approach a game, where my critique comes from, and perhaps justify the time we’re both sinking into this relationship.

First and foremost, I’m an experiential reviewer. Oh, and by the way, I am a reviewer (or critic as I’d prefer). There’s a movement to get away from that designation by some of the big media in the industry. I’m not afraid of that word and the baggage it contains.

But yes, experiential. By that I mean that I approach my writing from an angle of what it feels like to play a game. I don’t care one whit about teaching you how to play a design or conveying rules information in one of my articles, at least beyond the necessary context to elucidate a point. Yes, I leave information out, on purpose.

Describing what a game feels like is a difficult task. This is why you don’t see the bulk of reviewers adopting this approach. You have to analyze and evaluate from an emotional level. You have to contemplate a game’s position as a piece of culture. You need to distill a complex and sometimes bewildering social experience into words, hopefully ones that read beautifully and fire up your imagination.

The types of games I enjoy are full of emotion and drama, which is exactly how I approach transferring the experience to paper. I yearn for releases that stir my cold dead heart and get my blood pumping. When a game accomplishes that, I want to convey this through words and put you in that warm seat I was occupying.

And when a game fails to come through on its promise I want to encapsulate the anguish or apathy engendered. Nailing the highs and the lows can be difficult, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a reviewer’s job. Tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may.

Sometimes I get lost in my own writing and emotions and go too far. I’m constantly trying to evolve as a writer and critic, and like a purposeful adventure, it’s a journey. I will continue to grow and I hope you stick by my side.

Enough of this nonsense, I want an objective review.

Oh boy. Objective is something I will not be. A critic’s entire purpose is to offer evaluative commentary on a particular thing, whether that’s a film or a piece of music or a collection of card board we’re hunched over at the table. An objective review does not exist. It just doesn’t.

Because these words and emotions are subjective, sometimes we make mistakes. I aligned myself early on with the notion that I would not review a game before reaching at least three plays. Ideally I’d reach many more, although that’s not often practical.

One revealing psychological quirk I have is that it gives me dread whenever someone reads one of my articles and then responds with excitement exclaiming – “added to my list!” or “thanks for the recommendation, just bought it [now my family will need to eat tuna for a week you sod].” Leading people to quality titles is an enjoyable byproduct of this thing we do, but hearing someone purchased a game I recommended and then was disappointed is a bit like pissing yourself in front of the school.

Progress is forward and I hope to offer you much more in the coming weeks and months and maybe even years. My hope with this editorial work is to discuss games and particularly how they make us feel. The emotion and drama involved, not the weight of the box, quality of the components, or every little rule that you can already find in a book written by a professional. I want to delve into what makes a game work, whether it comes through on its promise and what it hopes to achieve. I want to talk about the play that happens above the table, the fire behind our eyes and the acid flying from our tongues. We don’t play games of little shaped cardboard and plastic, but games of big immature boys and girls talking trash and hurling spitfire.

One thing I won’t be kicking anytime soon is my enthusiasm for the hobby and for great games. Great games like Cyclades and Rising Sun and Earth Reborn and Tigris & Euphrates and even Happy Salmon. I’ve managed to avoid burnout thanks to a commitment from many designers to pursue innovation and creativity that continually sparks my imagination.

More of that, please.

See you next Monday.

 

 

If you enjoy what I’m doing at Player Elimination and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi.