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On Common Ground
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Common Ground
By: Stephen Granade

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Warning: the following is by necessity somewhat spoilery; though I have tried to avoid explicit information about the events of the game, reading it may affect your enjoyment if you haven't played it yet.

Stephen Granade's "Common Ground" is a short, friendly game, more character-piece and story than puzzle. By giving you the perspective of each of three protagonists in turn, it sketches in the relationships between members of a small family, showing you both sides of each point of conflict.

The technique of multiple viewpoints is a nifty one, used here with nuance and attention to detail. Object descriptions change, and new ones pop in and out of view, depending on what the character might be expected to notice or understand. The effect is subtler than the use of the same technique in "Exhibition" and less broadly humorous than "Being Andrew Plotkin": the characters are distinguished from each other by smaller variations, a separation of a few degrees only. Particularly fine is the way different people hear the *same* bits of conversation differently. Wording, tone, and sometimes even factual content changes, depending on what is going on.

Likewise subtle is the handling of what you have to do in the game. Most of the activity is straightforward. There is little that would count as a puzzle; there are a number of required actions (especially if you are one particular character), some of which are a bit boring, but this is exactly to the point. They convey perfectly the irritation of the situation: leading a rather ordinary life full of small frustrations.

Ultimately, however, all this is in service of presenting a static situation, and the nuance of game detail is not quite matched by nuance of character depth. By the end, you perceive how the characters misunderstand and undervalue each other, but they are still, in essence, rather stock characters: the rebellious teenage girl, the overworked mother, the slightly boozy stepfather. One can sympathize with them to a degree, but they don't distinguish themselves with much particularity. They lack pasts. They lack hobbies, and external interests. This sort of thing makes it difficult to care deeply about them.

Also problematic, and on similar terms, is the restriction of what one is allowed to say. Interaction between characters uses the device of TALK TO, which has been used more and more in recent games, and to good effect in things like "Kaged," I think. But this is a game that rests upon its interaction between people, in which the relationships are the whole point; and it is a bit disappointing not to be able to try certain conversational approaches.

The implementation of the physical environment is likewise a bit under-immersive. The house doesn't feel like a real house to me; it feels like a stage set up with a few key props for the drama. What is there is precisely what must be there, and nothing more.

To all of these criticisms there are two perfectly reasonable objections. One is that the nature of implementing this game -- one in which three different characters experience the same events -- severely restricts what one can do, since a PC cannot be forced to recapitulate the behavior of the NPC in an earlier scene. The more immersive and fully interactive the game becomes, the more difficult it is to police player actions in a way that will keep the outcome consistent.

The second, less technical and more aesthetic, is that the characters are constrained by their nature. They are bored, dissatisfied, and just managing to scrape through in life. Their lack of deep dimension says something about how they perceive themselves. Likewise, being who they are, they will only say certain things.

The effect of all this is a bit like acting out a play -- a somewhat minimalist play, at that, one of those modern ones with no conceivable happy ending. It presents the misery and disaffection of suburban life, and constrains the player character(s) in such a way that none of them really has a chance to rise above it.

And what of the ending? There is an important decision to be made, and this is the one point at which you are not, in fact, constrained to one course of action. You can choose which of two things to do -- but then you are never shown the outcome of the choice. It is easy enough to imagine what might ensue from either one, but in the absence of any result at all, it's hard to feel the significance of the decision. If you feel the power of the choice, it is entirely because you imagine it yourself -- sketching in implications and likely outcomes from your own personal experience, drawing on nothing in the game for support.

I'm not sure that it would have been wise to spell out, either in a detailed interactive piece or in a cut-scene, what happens the next day or the next week in lurid detail. Such an addition might have overbalanced the game, taking attention from the delicacy of the chapters that are already there. But it still does seem as though it would have been possible -- and would have much strengthened the game -- to make the decision itself more intense; to set up its emotional importance to the characters more; to give it, one way or the other, the force that it ought to have.

What we have, then, is a well-crafted and subtly considered piece that succeeds in many of its small goals, but possibly fails at the larger one of involving the player deeply. The story it tells seems abridged and insufficient, and the characters never entirely free themselves from stereotype. At the same time, it takes on a challenge rarely met in interactive fiction: it is entirely a story about nebulous human decisions and personal relationships, without wacky devices, melodramatic scenes, physical danger and pending disaster.

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