There’s something super Thurbery about The Yawhg. Hell, you see the name of the game right? We’re very much in Thirteen Clocks territory here. There’s a specific kind of atmosphere all of this has in common. Maybe I just think of the Yawhg’s effects as simply being what happens when a Todal gleeps an entire city. Something incomprehensible and unknowable and mysterious but something hinted at by the awkwardness of the spelling. Whatever a Yawhg is–and we never really find out–it’s really, really fucking bad.
The Yawhg will come in six weeks, the game tells us at the beginning, but while we the players know this, the characters–you choose at least two from a group of four–are going blithely about their lives doing whatever. Each week you pick an activity from a list; you gain points in some fairly broad RPG type stats, you have some skill checks–and after six activities for each character, the Yawhg comes and destroys the city, you get to pick what all of the characters do in the aftermath, and then you get your endings. All told, once you click onto the game’s structure, you can get through a playthrough in about five minutes, give or take.
And so an amount of randomization and causality is employed to give a great deal of variation to the proceedings. Certain events depend on skill checks, and others lead to repercussions down the line. Rat out an alchemist selling illegal potions and you’ll find the alchemist’s body hanging in the woods. Throw a volatile potion in the water supply and a doctor will note that people have been getting very sick lately. The wrong decision can lead to disaster for other people–nothing *truly* bad happens to you (although you can become a vampire or a werewolf), but it certainly happens to the city.
The Yawhg itself happens behind the scenes. Between turns, you get some text foreshadowing The Yawhg; after the sixth, you’re told the Yawhg has come; and then you’re presented with the city in ruins. It never makes it clear whether it’s a natural disaster, some kind of creature, a spell–it doesn’t matter. It’s given the title, but it’s not the focus of the game. And yet the time after the Yawhg comes is the moment that it becomes clear that the previous six turns have simply been backstory. The Yawhg is, ultimately, a one-choice game.
There’s roles for a Leader, a Builder, a Conjurer, a Doctor, even a Town Drunk, a Looter. Your skills, which you’ve been building up, determine your success at the various tasks–give someone with high charisma the Leader job and they’re going to delegate tasks effectively; make someone with a low intelligence score the Doctor and you’ll have a lot of dead patients. Make anyone the Looter and they’ll rob the city.
It is the effectiveness of all of these which determines the city’s eventual fate–put people in useful jobs that they do well and it’ll be rebuilt better than ever, giving characters more-or-less happy endings; fuck up, and you’re staring at a ruin, with many of you dying miserably. Cooperation is kind of the order of the day–everyone needs to be working for the good of the city in a role they excel at in order for the populace to thrive.
There’s an attempted multi-player mode. You have to pick at least two of the four characters–adding a second controller lets you divide characters between yourself and a friend. It’s an odd feature, considering each character has a distinct turn and that actions are mostly a function of selecting from a very simple menu–I suppose it’s handy, although I can’t ever see myself playing this game in a group, but I don’t see why you can’t just pass the controller or have someone driving. Well anyway. Minor complaint.
I do like that the characters are all, gameplay-wise, exactly the same as far as initial stats and any interactions go. They’re more like tokens or pawns than anything else, but there’s two guys and two girls, and they’ve crammed in as many skin tones as they possibly could into four characters. The game goes out of its way to elide gender and sexuality restrictions, as well–in one scenario, you meet your ex Kelly and their new flame Jean, and the game neither shows you a drawing of them nor assigns them pronouns beyond the singular “they”. You read back and forths where people say how fantasy works *can* have limited roles for women because the societies had limited roles for women, but even though The Yawhg is a fairly standard medieval-esque fantasy kingdom, it’s not interested in “realism”. And it is a much, much stronger work for doing so: It makes the game warmer, more comfortable, more inviting. The proceedings develop a much more cosmopolitan and current feel. It’s wonderful to have a game which is aware of traditional oversights in videogame characters and addresses this not by shrilly, narcissistically portraying the Self but by creating a roster of different costumes to put on for a few minutes–I wonder if the fact that the game was written and drawn by Emily Carroll, who seems to be a comic artist who made a videogame rather than a game designer who draws well, has anything to do with it: This is not a Scene Indie by any means.
(For the record: The game’s billed as a collaboration between Carroll and programmer/designer Damian Sommer, with Ryan Roth’s sound design and Halina Heron’s music, but while all of the parts are wonderful and add up to a greater whole, the game is all about its art and writing.)
Funny though: It’s a visual novel, or more accurately an interactive comic. It’s a genre I normally hate. Fuck’s sake: I’m a 30-year-old man. There is no comfortable way for me to play a videogame which focuses on romance, young Japanese girls, or romancing young Japanese girls. It’s creepy as shit. I can’t be blamed for avoiding the genre entirely. And if I miss out on good games like Long Live the Queen, I’m okay with it. After all, I know what reaction I’d get if my roommates ever saw me playing a game which could best be described as, “There’s a bunch of different girls, each with their own unique disability, and you get to pick which one you get to fall in love with.”
Fuck’s sake: I’d call the cops on me for that one.