Victor's Variomatic #3: three games by Tom McHenry

Sorry for the hiatus: I moved house, bought a new computer and went on vacation, all of which interfered with playing IF. But I’m planning to continue the Variomatic. It is now time for instalment #3.

After a short, relatively easy puzzle game and a long, relatively difficult puzzle game, both from 2002, this time we’re going to play a recent Twine game. In fact, because I think all of them are relatively short and because it might be interesting to compare several shorter works by the same author, we are going to play all three games published to date by Tom McHenry. That would be Horse Master (2013), which has been extremely well received and was voted #23 in the IF Top 50 of 2015; as well as Let’s Go Eat (2015) and Tonight Dies the Moon (2015). I haven’t played any of these games yet, so I hope to be in for a surprise!

Horse Master

[spoiler]I don’t know whether like is the right verb, but I certainly had a positive response to Horse Master. The game has imagination, especially when describing the central fiction of the horse and the process of mastering it; and it delivers it with good pacing. From the very first scene it is obvious that these horses are strange; then the physical details start coming in and our mental image becomes more and more alien; and finally, at the great day, it turns out that all the preconceptions we still had about horse mastering were wrong as well. For it turns out – and this is of course a brilliant thematic move – that we are not trying to master any abilities that have to do with horses; we are trying to master the horse itself, to be its master, to dominate it to the point where it wont eat us and will let itself be killed. There is no achievement and no intrinsic worth to the procedure at all. There is only the prize conferred on us by a society that wants to witness a bizarre and gruesome spectacle.

The game poses, at least for a while, as a sort of time management game, although it quickly becomes apparent that the optimal strategy is also the simplest one. This raises the suspicion that the game is not about any kind of player skill. Then, when you get the hang of it, the game kicks you out of your house, and suddenly the time that was your resource becomes your greatest enemy, something to bridge and survive. That too was a neat trick. The fact that you can lose the game during this period does reveal a weakness, though: when one replays, one clicks through all the choices without reading or thinking. There’s not enough variation in the game to support the kind of replaying that is demanded.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the piece is, at least on one level, about bodybuilding and/or animal shows, both activities where one is manipulating a body to conform with weird standards in order to gain praise and approvan of spectators. On an even more obvious level, the game is about the pains that someone will go through if they are desperate enough, and how a competitive system can create a kind of race to the bottom. But I guess that I’m actually most intrigued by the game’s portrayal of the end goal of the endeavour: a state beyond all wanting, where one has transcended all cares. Horse Master is about people who are willing to give up everything because they believe in a reward that is so big that it equates happiness forever; and of course, some people do think that way about particular kinds of success. But, and the game makes this abundantly clear, that is an illusion. It is unreal. The whole bizarre fiction of Horse Master works, I think, precisely because the game wants to tell us that anything that is worth sacrificing everything for must be unreal.

The game may be a bit simple and repetitive when replayed; and the imagery is certainly a bit heavy-handed, both when describing the icky things happening to your body and the horse’s body and, especially, when trying to set a political mood. But Horse Master is nevertheless impressive, because it manages to pack a lot of thematic into what is, after all, quite a small game. A great piece of choice-based fiction.[/spoiler]

The one thing I always wondered is, does the stat-building actually MEAN anything? Does it change anything? I played it through twice; I failed the first time, I succeeded the second. I don’t remember anything I did differently, and indeed, the failure message does seem to suggest that the last thing to be checked at the competition is something I have no control over.

Apart from that difference at the end, the playthroughs were pretty much the same, and I made no conscious effort to keep to the same pattern (granted, I made no effort to deviate from it, either). So I’ve been curious.

Yeah, I think Horse Master can be read as being about any number of fields which have toxic levels of competitiveness - extraordinarily lucrative for a very small number of extraordinarily dedicated, talented and lucky people, non-remunerative and exhausting for the great majority. Animal shows and bodybuilding are probably the closest analogies, but you could read it as being about any of the major commercial arts or sports, for instance.

I doubt that the stats are individually meaningful, since there aren’t any tasks related to them in the competition. But we can try and see what happens if you pick a highly suboptimal pattern – e.g., just feeding the horse all the time – and see whether that makes a difference during the competition.

And business, also. But with the big difference that Horse Master ends with a state of eternal bliss, and none of these other endeavours do – e.g., retired sport icons are well-known for having a lot of trouble adjusting to a life outside of the spotlights. This is the fiction, the unreality, which Horse Master ends with, presumably to question the kind of expectations that people who engage in these activities have.

If you’re curious about how this works, Naomi Clark has a really good reading of Horse Master (including code-reading to work out what’s going on with the stats) in Videogames For Humans.

Let’s Go Eat

[spoiler]This game isn’t nearly as successful as Horse Master. In fact, I think it would be fair to label it as a design failure, since it just doesn’t seem to fulfil the design goals the author set himself. That goal is to simulate the frustrating experience of searching for a restaurant with a group of people, and to comment on that experience. In the credits, McHenry explicitly tells us what his message is:

In my opinion, the game fails on two levels. First, it fails because the analysis of the situation given in the quote doesn’t go to the heart of the experience that McHenry is drawing one. Second, it fails because play doesn’t effectively engage us with either the situation or the message.

Let’s look at the first point first. Is the problem of finding a restaurant really a problem of people not expressing their preferences? While a certain fear of making things difficult or less pleasant for other people (“really, everything is fine with me”) may play a role, this is at most a very small part of the problem. Suppose that you gave everyone in the group a list of cuisines and asked them to grade each of them (“Steak: 8; Indian: 4, …”) That would in no way solve the problem of finding a restaurant, because the space of restaurants is incredibly complex and so is the space of preferences. Perhaps I’d love to eat Italian, but not a pizza, since I already ate pizza yesterday. What I want is a pasta, but preferably not one with tomato sauce. I’d kill for a pasta with cream and truffles; and also for a dish with anchovies, pine nuts and parsley. However, my budget for the entire meal is $20, so if it’s more expensive than that, I simply must look somewhere else. Atmosphere is also important to me; if it looks like a fast-food joint, I don’t want to go there. But I don’t care whether all twelve of us can sit at one table; I’m fine with splitting up and meeting each other again after the meal. And so on, and so forth… Our preferences are very, very complicated, and there’s no way we could possibly communicate them all in advance. We don’t even know about all of them in advance. So just “expressing your preferences” is not going to help very much.

The problem is exacerbated by two other factors. First, even if we have the preferences of everyone in our dinner party, there’s no clear way of weighing them against each other. Is it worse for you to have to eat Indian or for me to have to pay a few bucks more than I intended to? Is it worse for you to have to walk another five minutes or for me to have to sit in a neon lit restaurant? It is here, I think, that self-effacing tendencies are much, much more prominent than in the initial state of communicating our preferences. But even if people didn’t have those tendencies, there is no way you can weigh this stuff. Second, unless you are a well-informed local, you’re always in a state of incomplete information. You don’t know which restaurants exist, how good they are, how busy they will be, and so on.

So the problem of choosing a restaurant is that you only have a vague inkling of people’s preferences, have only a vague idea of how to weigh them against each other, and have incomplete information about the possible choices. Solving the problem means that you try to get at least some clarification on all three of these issues, without taking too much time doing it. That’s hard, and criteria for success are not obvious. But Let’s Go Eat places so much emphasis on people not expressing their preferences, that it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

That wouldn’t be too bad if play itself had been engaging and enlightening. But in fact, you just choose a restaurant and click “eat here”, without any serious discussion ever happening between the people in your party. Since everyone has their own preferences, these generally balance out; and the numbers you get at the end of your meal are so abstract that they don’t mean much. The game doesn’t succeed in making you care about the score you get; and that means that you are not invested in finding a place that will actually make people happy.

I would have preferred a game where it is actually hard to find a place that your group will even enter. Perhaps you have dozens of restaurants, all of them imperfectly described on your map; and when you try to enter one, it turns out that Jackie will not eat sushi, at all, and that Frank cannot pay anything above 25$; and so on. Or Lydia starts to complain that she preferred the Italian restaurant you passed by three minutes ago. And so on – give the people in the group some personality, have bickering and discussion, and make the player’s goal to find anything that will be acceptable. That could have been more fun as a game, and also much closer to the real experience.[/spoiler]

Good breakdown of Let’s Go Eat. It’s the kind of game that seems better than it actually is, because it gets a lot of mileage out of the player’s internalization, I think, especially in regard to the custom friends you can name. The naming of the custom friends is really inconsequential, though.

My only real thought about the game was, this is why human friendships where you actually spend time with people in real space are vestigial remnants of the time before computers and dogs were invented.

Well… I think it might be possible to solve the restaurant problem and still get something positive out of being together. :wink: But I like the phrase “before computers and dogs were invented.”

Tonight dies the Moon is a lot better, I recommend people play it and I will post more about it soon.

Tonight Dies the Moon

[spoiler]Like Horse Master, Tonight Dies the Moon is a futuristic game set in a dystopian world that is sketched in few but striking and imaginative details. Also like Horse Master, it contains some sequences that are reminiscent of existing computer game genres – a sort of reverse Space Invader and a market-simulating farming game – but neither deliver nor want to deliver that kind of victory that such games promise. Add the instantly recognisable visual style of the games, and there can be no doubt that you are playing another Tom McHenry game.

Tonight Dies the Moon is actually two related games: one where you play on Earth and one where you play on the Moon. In one sense, these sequences are entirely different. On Earth, you are obsessed with the war against the Moon, you go to work to shoot some lunar bases, you say goodbye to your best friend, and then you escape to the moon. On the Moon, you’ve apparently never heard of a war; you spend turn after turn planting crops for both the government and yourself, raking in big profits for the former and meagre earnings for the latter; you have some non-interactive interactions with your fellow colonists; and finally, you get blown up by an attack from Earth. (Perhaps it is also possible to die earlier from starvation, if you don’t manage to be successful at the farming game; and maybe, just maybe, it is possible to earn enough money for a ticket to Earth.) So where the Earth story is a more traditional piece of linear fiction ending on a high note, the Moon story is a farming game with some episodic fictions sprinkled through it and a predetermined loss looming over you.

But in another sense, the two halves of the game are very much alike. Both protagonists live in poverty and must scrape to get by. Both are pawns in a political system that doesn’t care about them and with which they collaborate for lack of an alternative. Both keep their lives tolerable through a friendship with a single person. Both dream of a different existence, and look at each other’s world in the night sky with the vague hope that maybe there is a better life up there. We, of course, after playing both halves of the game, know that those dreams are only that, dreams; they have no base in reality. But we understand why people would think differently. We understand why they must think differently in order to keep life bearable. As a tale of misguided and yet understandable longing, Tonight Dies the Moon is quite beautiful and affecting. The Moon-sequence could have been a bit shorter (the game goes on and on long after the episodic fiction has stopped), but all in all, not in the least because of the many original details (like ChangeNames and the process of copying and changing books on the moon), it works and stays with the reader.

Less successful is the political side of the game. Earth and Moon are quite obviously meant to be modern-day versions of the U.S.A. and Russia in de cold war. Earth is a hyper-individualistic and shallow society obsessed with a war fought with drones, and even more obsessed with its bad health care system. The Moon poses as an egalitarian community, but the government is just profiting from the people, its plan-based economy is a disaster leading to famine, and anyone who wants to read something good must engage in samizdat. The former, if read as a critique of current right-wing political trends in the U.S.A., is over-the-top and lacks the kind of truth that would make it sting. (After all, not even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in favour of expensive health care or ineffective wars, even though their policy decisions might lead to that.) The latter, if read as a critique of the Soviet Union, is like kicking someone who is already dead; while I don’t see how it would apply to current left-wing movements. The entire game might have been more successful if the personal stories of longing had been emphasised more and the political background had been emphasised less.

In total, I think Tonight Dies the Moon is less successful than Horse Master, but still a great play. I’m looking forward to more games by Tom, because his imagination is a fecund (and I suspect scaly) thing that takes us to wild and aberrant places![/spoiler]


It hits a lot of interesting beats about self-determination and identity. On the moon, there is no identity other than “egal” – no social gender, presumably no socioeconomic classes. Significantly, the egals don’t even seem to have names, they’re just noted by one capital letter and a dash. On Earth, everyone can theoretically change identities any time.

Also, the game takes up the question of the relationship of one’s desires and one’s rights. Does everyone have the right to be who they want to be and to do what they want to do? On Earth the answer is yes. However, not only is the right to self-determination effectively denied to the disadvantage by the socioeconomic reality, but the protagonist questions whether autonomy and freedom and pleasure are even worthwhile when attained. On the moon, people are forced to deny themselves and to conform, the freedom to earn a living and to determine one’s own destiny severely restricted by the socialist economy. However, the small bit of economic and social freedom that does exist seem to inspire more purpose and more desire for life in the moon side protagonist than the apathetic Earth-side protagonist exhibits. Although both regimes are shown to be corrupt and unfair, ultimately the game seems to be somewhat less cynical about life on the moon.

Not sure what to think about the nostalgic aspect of the game – it supposedly starts in 2000, in an alternate pulp-sci-fi history where the moon was initially colonized in the 1940s. Of course, it’s largely about the glory days of idealistic anti-Communist sentiment.

I agree about the politics being poorly done, although the simplicity of the political themes is probably tied to the pulp nostalgia. However, I think it’s too simplistic to pin the social evils of Earth to American right-wing politics while having the moon people pride themselves in being progressive champions of modernity. After all, the heavy emphasis on self-determination and on switching identities at will evokes American left-wing progressivism. The game doesn’t go into potentially volatile social issues in regard to self-determination, but those questions are suggested by the premise. At any rate, the game seems to be suggesting that there are no good options, that societies run to extremes and deny their people the chance to be truly authentic.

(Spoiler regarding one possible ending)

[spoiler]It is possible to save enough money to buy a ticket to Earth. (I haven’t figured out how the timer to the bombing happens; of the two times I played, one time I didn’t get killed but eventually received a message saying that the game was effectively over, though it still let me save enough to buy a ticket.).

I recommend looking for the “back to Earth” ending, because it has a powerful scene depicting the relationship between the protagonist’s dreams of freedom and the artificial self-determination shown in the other half of the game.[/spoiler]

I had actually drafted a blog post on Tonight Dies the Moon before this thread started up, and today it’s live – … m-mchenry/ . I think I found the piece more successful than Victor did but was more focused on what it evoked about individual personal experience rather than politics.