Owl Skip (Tim Sheinman) is something of a prolific developer. Since we covered his fantastic music-based biographical puzzle game Family in July, he has released a total of five more games. Which is madness. Especially so when one of them is Rivals, a spiritual sequel to Family, and feels like a game that should have taken a solo developer at least a year to put together.
Much like Family, Rivals is about piecing together the biographical history of a number of bands, based on fictional articles, memos, emails and recorded interviews. And, once again, listening to the music of the artists, all written and played by Sheinman himself. Just writing eight new songs should have taken longer than that.
This time things are more contemporary, set between 1995 and 2010, following the rivalry between to imaginary key figures of the US alt-country scene. Running concurrently with bands like Wilco and Grizzly Bear, and the influence of singers like Nick Cave, Eliot Smith, Tom Waits and Lee Hazlewood, we’re tasked with unpicking the relationship between a Luke Jackson and Josh Moore. They were briefly together in a band called Pony Parade, before their careers split and their rivalry began.
Rather than a family tree to complete, this time it’s about submitting the chapter titles for a book that’s being written about the two musicians, based on a precise of the events, and the month and year they took place. Which is immediately a far less clear system, and certainly took a bit of getting used to. It doesn’t help that, as with Family, you’re advanced forward each time you get five answers correct, but here the chapters are grouped in sixes. That’s made even more confusing by only being able to advance forward through the five blocks of six, with no button to flip backward. Odd.
However, once in the groove it all started to make better sense. Once more I was picking through the snippets and recordings to spot those little hints, to put together what is essentially an intriguingly complicated logic puzzle: This particular fact has to apply to an April, and there are only two entries for Aprils available before that incident on ’04, so it’s one of those… Ah, but if this album flopped in ’02, then it would have to have been in that April! And so on.
This is made all the more entertaining by the sheer quality of what’s on offer. The recorded interviews, answer machine messages, etc, are well performed by voice actors, and the music is not only ridiculously good, but also hides clues within itself too. I finished the game with three pages of scribbled notes (and accompanying doodles), as I worked out the order of release of Powderhorn’s albums, and worked out in which order Josh had his babies.
Best of all, this game gets a bit Bleeding Edges, with some real-world searching to do too. I wish there had been a bit more, but only because the couple of occasions were so fun. The other slightly missed opportunity here came with realising the URL for the book’s fictional author worked when I put it into Chrome, but then doesn’t really do anything but point you toward the game’s Discord. I’d really like to have found a few neat clues hidden there.
While I’m nitpicking, the layout isn’t as neat as it could be. It’s definitely muddling when selecting chapter titles for the book, and deselecting one doesn’t clear its meta-tag when hovering over the empty entry in the book. A way to drag and drop the titles would have been much more manageable.
But once again, Sheinman has displayed just what a talent he is. Coding, creating the art, writing the game, writing and performing the music (with vocals from the actors)… that’s all sickeningly impressive. Having it manage to come together as a pretty tricky puzzle with so many moving parts is deeply impressive. But more than that, there’s a depth of knowledge here that I find daunting, an understanding of music scenes based on a lot of reading, listening and thinking. Just as Family showed off a wealth of understanding of the British ’80s London music scene, Rivals demonstrates a hefty knowledge of where alt-country met indie success in turn-of-the-century North America.
And once you’ve finished, there’s even a NG+ to delve into, in which even more elusive information is requested, with a “submit” button letting you send your answers directly to the developer, rather than just being told if you’re right.
Family was free, which I said at the time was a mistake! So I’m glad to say Rivals costs a very modest fiver, which will hopefully see Owl Skip receive some well-deserved rewards.