March 4, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
Subtle choices lead down strange new roads in Javy Gwaltney and Kitty Horrorshow's The Right Side of Town. Sometimes, those decisions are not so subtle as you follow a trail of grisly murders across Asphodel, a moon orbiting Mars. Playing as Naomi, a detective who also happens to be an android who's been hiding her identity for a few hundreds years, your job is to solve the case. Or not. It's really up to you, and in the branching series of decisions you can make across the game's world, you'll guide your own fate, and that of the world with it.
Many games laud themselves for decisions that affect the story, but The Right Side of Town really made me feel that I was in charge of my destiny. Even though outside forces were often putting me in situations that tried to force my hand in one way or another, I felt a degree of control in the narrative that I'm not used to. I assume part of this is just the beauty of twine, but it takes skill to write a story that feels natural and cohesive when it can run off in about six directions for each of the endings. Even if someone in the game is arguing with you or trying to put you off a set decision, you still make the final call. There are no empty decisions where the game does what it wants anyway. If you choose an action, that builds toward a certain end.
I'm not saying that every single decision has a concrete effect on the end of the game. Part of the beauty of this story is in creating your own narrative and character for Naomi. That's where I was extremely impressed at how well the story was put together. Naomi is a bit of a clean slate in ways, as you can decide just how obsessed she is with her job, how much she cares for her few friends, or how much or little she is willing to reveal about herself. Small decisions I made helped shape a character I had in mind for her in each playthrough. I felt close to her detective partner, Rob, feeling he was a good friend, so my first few playthroughs reflected that. In later ones, I felt Naomi she be more cold and distant, angry about having to hide her identity for hundreds of years. You could easily make the story reflect an identity of your choosing with a couple of decisions.
These decisions did not have as much effect on the storyline, but they did help me settle on a character for her, one that informed all the calls I made afterward. In many games, I've felt like I'm making decisions because they were right or wrong. The most I had to think of was whether they were "Good" or "Bad". In The Right Side of Town, I felt more like these calls were made because I had set up Naom's character in a certain way, and that I was living through the complex wants and needs of an actual person. It loaded each tiny, seemingly insignificant decision with importance, and the fact that I could subtly guide a character's development, and not just the events in the story, had me floored.
This is all helped with little asides that gave me hints of Naomi's background. I haven't played any of Gwaltney's previous games and knew little of Naomi's back story, but little moments in the game let me in on her secrets. Small words and things said by people will trigger memories and thoughts in Naomi, and you can choose to click on them to find out what they are. These are often delivered in a stream of consciousness style, words blurting out across a mind racing with panic or fear. It makes them a bit hard to understand at times, but their delivery is more in keeping with her mindset, giving you not just the memory itself, but the way she is experiencing it in that moment. You may have to read the same sentence an extra time or two, but the delivery makes it more fitting for her current mindset. You are looking at a private thought in her head, after all.
These little moments really give Naomi some interesting character traits and background, helping you to get a sense of the thoughts running through her head while she looks at the world. She is an android struggling to keep her identity safe, and one who is also trying to hide information about a child she has. At the same time, she has let it slip to her police partner that she has a child. You can tell all this from a few snippets of dialogue and a few memories triggered by something someone says. It activates memories in the same way it does for most of us, where a turned phrase will suddenly send us back months and years to someone else who said something similar. It's a subtle way of telling players her background without hammering us over the head with it. It's also nice to see Naomi bubbling over with thoughts, her mind on her task yet also perpetually distracted by her own memories. It reminds me of myself in my daily life, my mind on my work yet always halfway thinking of something else. She may not technically be human, but this very trait humanizes her a great deal.
Other clickable words will reveal some of Kitty Horrorshow's poetry. Capable of weaving nightmares, hope, sorrow, and humor, the handful of her works within the story show Horrorshow has some sharp skills. These poems encourage you to sink into the imagery, painting pictures with a handful of words, reflecting the loneliness of Naomi's life and the struggle of the people and other androids working on this world. They can also tell a little joke, one maybe not so funny, about the mindset that lead humanity to this point in the story. I really looked forward to these moments, which were almost jarring in their strange beauty in this dark world on the verge of destruction. Your average police story would often only include poetry if it was written by a 'crazy' killer, but including it in The Right Side of Town made its story feel more unique and personal.
The game also handles some serious topics with grace. The accusation of being lazy and standing by while others fight wars against prejudice - the guilt of protecting yourself when the world is devouring your brothers and sisters - comes up, letting the player feel it for themselves. Questions about what makes us human, about the nature of capitalism, and about how we hide who we really are, all come up indirectly through the storyline. It's difficult to go into more in detail without spoiling things, but the story does an excellent job touching on these subjects without preaching.
All that being said, the major plot points of this story feel a bit rushed. Events build to a head far too quickly for my liking, tying themselves up in a little over a half hour. The character-building and branching decision making are all done very well, but the plot hurtles to a conclusion just as I felt I was settling into the story. Other aspects are so well done that I didn't mind, and my only real problem with this was that I wanted to know more and to experience the world a little further. I like a slower build in my fiction, and this story felt like it was almost too busy for its length. If this many things were happening, I would like to have had a bit more time to experience them. It's a short trip from the first murder to the end of civilization, but one that left me wanting more.
Erandi Huipe's soundtrack provides a nice backdrop to the action, playing across several calming tracks. It shifts across a few different songs as you play, and is only connected to the game by a YouTube link you open as the game begins. Depending on your reading speed, this means that none of the songs have links to any particular moment in the game, but the smooth soundtrack just works anyway. There are no rising swells or any particular lows in the music, but rather a calming series of songs to keep you relaxed as you watch the world slowly burn. It's enjoyable background reading music when I'm used to such things being extremely distracting, and it fits the melancholy mood of the work well.
I wanted more of the story when I was done. I wanted to know more about Naomi as a mother, and about the conflicts in her head. While I felt that the plot itself was short, this made it easy to jump back into the story and try on new character styles for Naomi. Being able to guide her through this world, to shape her as a different person in every playthrough, gives The Right Side of Town a power that traditional fiction can't touch. I love a good novel, but this game showed me just what video games can bring to traditional storytelling through the reader. The Right Side of Town gives the reader agency in the storyline, and a power over where it goes, that you just don't see in other forms of entertainment. That it can do so with subtlety just shows the skill Gwaltney has as a writer. Adding Kitty Horrorshow's wonderful poetry into the mix, as well as Huipe's music, creates a delightful experience that is over far too soon.