June 11, 2012 4:00 PM | Cassandra Khaw
Described as a cutting-edge experiment in interactive narrative, Prom Week was an IGF 2012 Finalist for Technical Excellence and a crowd favorite at the E3 Indiecade Showcase last week. At least, I think so. I certainly didn't get a chance to play it up till the point I got home from the expo as the booth was constantly crowded with interested playtesters.
Set within the days leading up to that all-important event and on that hallowed occasion itself, Prom Week allows players to explore the stories of ten adolescents, all of whom appear to be based on familiar high school archetypes. For example, there's Oswald, the overachieving bastard in preppy attire and the curiously-dressed foreign exchange student Gunther. Each of them come with their own set of likes and dislikes along with a relatively malleable network of person connections.
This, of course, is where it gets interesting.
To put matters into perspective, let's take a look at one of the earlier stories you will unlock. In spite of the fact he's a bespectacled, pimply Linux-loving teenager, Zack wants to be the new Prom King. Given his basic nature, this isn't particularly easy to accomplish. To make matters worse, there's a jock named Buzz standing between him and his prize. Without the (literal) muscle to back his claim to throne, how does he proceed? When you begin Zack's story, the game tells you exactly how: you turn others against the reigning candidate. However, it's not a must. All characters come with multiple goals. If you can't stomach the idea of playing the backstabbing sneak, you don't have to. Instead of ruining Buzz's reputation, you can choose to work towards establishing a relationship with Zack's crush or to make friends with the head of the Prom Planning Commitee or any combination of the three objectives. B
Gameplay itself is relatively simple. In spite of its name, each 'story' in Prom Week is, for the most part, separated into three days. During each of these days, you'll have a certain number of turns with which you can work towards one of the protagonist's desires. This generally entails interaction between two characters, something that can be achieved by clicking on person and then another before choosing a desired option. It's that straightforward. What makes Prom Week unique is the fact that success at a certain action is determined by the relationship between the characters, their relationship with the other parties' friends and enemies and even past actions. Someone who has cheated on an ex-boyfriend, for example, is unlikely to find much sympathy from that person's comrades. Furthermore, each time anything happens in the game, perceptions can and will change.
Prom Week is an intriguing simulation of the high school landscape. Though far from perfect, it is an enthralling experience. A simple attempt to brag to an ambivalent party can engineer anything from approval to public humiliation even as another waltz in on your shame. One thing I really liked about the game was the fact that relationships could be established between anyone irrespective of gender. There also appears to be no 'lose' states. In one instance, I found myself so distracted by my own machinations that I failed to fulfill any of the character's goals. He didn't seem to notice.
Ramblings aside, you should definitely give Prom Week a look when you have more than an hour to spare. If you're curious about what went into the development of the game, Gamasutra posted an interview that Leigh Alexander conducted with the team back in February. As for everyone else, here's a convenient link for those who want to check the game out.