IF Comp 2016: Black Rock City (Jim Munroe)

Black Rock City is a widely branching set of vignettes set around the Burning Man festival, made in Texture. Spoilers past the cover image.

Cover art for Black Rock City

Preamble: Texture is a recently created tool that uses a drag-and-drop system to enable the player to make choices, often with a verb-noun structure (“talk to young woman”) but with the ability to have variation (“get aboard”). Jim Munroe, the author of Black Rock City, is also the co-creator of Texture.

First Impressions: I love the cover art: it’s stark, simple, and unsettling. The blurb is straightforward and self-assured, and makes me confident that the writing will be solid. I wonder whether there will be an apocalyptic element: the dust storm certainly sounds ominous.

We begin with spare but evocative prose and a dash of surrealism – a flying carpet? Is it real or just a hallucination? – and encounter a young woman whose bike chain has broken. You’ll quickly know whether the game’s for you or not; for me, wandering around a desert festival is just my cup of tea. I drift through the environment, interacting with other characters in a vague, transient way that reminds me of a less frenetic 80 Days. I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t find out more about the bike woman, but it’s time to move on.

Getting Stuck In: We’re almost always given two choices, usually opposing such as stay/follow but sometimes more flavourful like talk to/look at. (Upon replaying, it becomes clear that even the apparently flavour choices take the player on alternative branches.)

A flaw of Texture is that as far as I know, currently you can’t differentiate a link that adds text to the page and one that takes you elsewhere. Black Rock City has a small number of  these instances; I’d love to see it, and Texture, with the ability to differentiate between types of choice.

However, I do enjoy the drag and drop mechanic, and the look of the whole thing is minimalistic and neat. The writing style mostly continues to be sparse, but with the occasional more elaborate image such as one of my favourites: “From this far off it [the Temple] looks like a bleached ribcage of a whale-scale creature, the people going in and out like carrion insects.”

Druggy dreamlike logic leads me on my first playthrough to make out with a sexy semi-dressed soldier (real or costumed, it’s unclear) before the storm hits, which is surprising and rather sweet. The playthrough is a short, but atmospheric, morsel and I’m excited to replay.

Subsequently: Replaying, it’s clear that Black Rock City is a time cave or widely branching choose-your-own-adventure style structure in which choices branch outward to form their own plot-threads each time and do not converge. I have a completely different experience getting to know my friend the woman with the broken bike chain, and then another, then another and before I know it my character’s heavy-petting with someone dressed as a Cylon, and I’m totally addicted to finding more endings.

Time caves aren’t usually my thing because they can feel frustrating if the branching nature isn’t clearly signalled. However, Black Rock City works for me partly because the blurb contains an intrinsic end point, and partly because the short length of the game means that you can play the entire thing several times with barely an overlap in content.

Pros: Prose. Conversations and thoughts meander in a vaguely intoxicated way, and surreal imagery combines nicely with sweet human moments. Maybe something very strange is happening, or maybe the protagonist is just really high. It doesn’t really matter.

Cons: It’s short and plotless, and left me wanting more. And it’s good to want more, but I’m not quite satisfied. I want to know more about the main character and the people they meet; I want to be able to lose people and then reunite with them after the storm. I’d like this game even more if its scope was expanded.

Overall: Although I strongly relate to the nap all day sloth, I adore fictional parties, especially if you get to make out with attractive fictional characters. And there’s a lot of that to be had in Black Rock City, along with absurdity, chats about the meaning of life, and aimless but prettily-described wandering. The game doesn’t seem to go anywhere other than the individual threads, but the threads are self-contained tidbits that charmed and delighted me.


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