Robin & Orchid concerns ghost sightings in a church which are investigated by the student reporter Robin. Robin is on the job with Sharon and Orchid; she has got the notebook of chief editor Casey to consult and a polaroid camera to take photos to prove the sightings.
[proc] The ghost sightings occured at a 'lock-in', that is some teenagers let themselves be locked in to the church at night to do whatever they like without grown-ups. Other actors were present, about whom Casey's notes will reveal sometimes even complete life stories. But this story does not take place on such a slumber party. What are the girls doing here, are they just researching? Or did they break in?
[Mr Creosote] They are investigating the story, that is what I gathered from the vague introduction. Editor Casey has given them the job and teacher Sharon had to take the bullet to play the responsible adult at hand while the two girls search the church for ghosts.
[proc] Two things make me wonder: First, the preamble of Casey's notebook says 'I am writing to you from the past. Back here in the past it is very dark.' Later, you can open a forbidden door, the story shortly looks into a dark future for Robin only to continue with the unopened door. Many entries refer back to a 'distant past', for example youth leader Patrick having had a predecessor in such a 'distant past' who could be linked to the suicidal Jennie, the ghost. Are we talking about a journalistic ghost hunt or have I missed a plot layer?
[Mr Creosote] This is an ambiguity which the game tries to play with in some places. Initially, the player has to take such entries as the one from Casey about Casey as jokes: As Casey obviously wrote this complete notebook before Robin would read it, so he is 'writing from the past'. This 'forbidden door' (the Pastor's office door), on the other hand, is not really a glimpse into the future, but an expression of Robin's overly careful, even frightened personality, as she is imagining grave consequences for herself.
[proc] I'm also more inclined to believe that the game follows a confusion strategy: There is the upfront plot, but the player can deep dive into arbitrary depths about heartbreaking stories like the one about 'homeschooled Gwen'. So is this just a game with adjustable depth or do those anecdotes together with the NPCs have a deeper meaning.
[Mr Creosote] Well, so we've already come to the most important question. After a couple of run-throughs, I have decided not to believe that this means anything. The game tries to unsettle the player, but this is only a cover for the missing meaning. At the end, all this stuff hinted at before falls apart anyway: The most obvious ending has Robin sitting together with Casey and the ghost story has been uncovered to be a hoax. So much for Casey in the 'distant past' and Ghost-Jennie.
The second ending, also, does not hint at anything supernatural going on. On the contrary, both are follow a completely worldly philosophy. If there is more to it, it is hidden all too well.
[proc] I think the game has been constructed as ghost slapstick and it tries to drop cryptic background information here and there. No matter how you twist it, there is nothing supernatural to find here, it is just hinted at in a couple of situations.
So we can pretty much sum up the contents: The game is about a practical joke in a church and nothing more. This, at least, is my impression after playing a couple of times, because the side stories seem too much interspersed without them touching the plot as a whole. So they are just tree decorations, as it is essentially a christmas story.
Breadth & Depth
[proc] But if this is completely worldly, you have to ask the question whether this is an anti-religious game. Does the joke go as far as considering the game ambiguous in this respect?
[Mr Creosote] What makes you believe that?
[proc] Mostly those background plots: Jennie has jumped from a church tower in the distant past because of a religious love-ban. Youth leader Patrick is portrayed as a moron who likes white crosses and Tammy prefers reading books during the sermon. I even asked myself whether Robin is supposed to be the better Christian, as Casey interprets it at the end, or whether the story can be seen as a Bible Retold satire.
[Mr Creosote] This thesis could be rebunked extrinsically: A game which starts out with credits to two church communities will most likely not be intended as serious criticism about religion in general. Intrinsically, I'm simply interpreting these things you mentioned in the way that these are supposed to be human stories about human destiny. Roughly in this vein: You will find unpleasant, aimless or even downright nasty people everywhere. Though if you take Tammy's story, for example, that's just 'kids will be kids' – nothing more than that!
[proc] It goes on, though. There is the thing about US mentality and religion. About a poster upstais, the question is dryly asked whether the bible should only be applied to the American people and the thoughts the religious Casey has mock the flags in the altar room – a Christian one and a Star-Spangled Banner. His views could be taken as blasphemy in radical religious circles. Especially in the USA.
[Mr Creosote] None of this supports an anti-religious interpretation of the game as a whole, though. The point about Robin as the 'better Christian', I would not refuse outright, but I also would not support it. Robin, at least, is shown as a person who follows what she does through with a strong sincerity, like Casey also. So you could interpret those side stories in the way that these people are not taking their own religion serious enough, i.e. you could see the game as criticism of 'false Christianity'.
Though I don't really see a positive characterisation of Robin. Scenes like the one with the office door are talking volumes: She is overly correct, careful up to self-sacrifice and inhibited. Add to that an unhealthy amount of obedience to authorities. If she is meant to be, as you say, the 'better Christian', this would in fact be quite a negative statement about Christianity! Though I don't see that in this story, because the only 'true' Christian in there, Casey, comes across as much more relaxed and therefore more positive than her.
[proc] Okay, at the end of the day, I also consider the game too soft to really work in a blasphemic way. I rather believe the religious theme is part of the confusion strategy. And then I have another one: Casey as the mediator, Patrick as Christian moron, Jennie's dad as destructive moral crusader, Aiden as the acting sunnyboy without Christian roots. The tragic roles are taken by girls who fail within the male Christian system of power. Die acting girls used the system for their purposes, though. Does the game go into a feminist direction or is this also just part of the smoke screen put up by the authors who know the market and the discussions?
[Mr Creosote] Concerning this, too, I believe you're reading more into this than the authors ever intended. For me, this game is neither about religion, nor about feminism. It just takes place in front of a religious background which therefore just happens to be patriarchic. When you look at the earlier games from Veeder & Boegheim, they never had such a societal subject. They just write about humans, normal human beings with all their strengths and weaknesses.
[proc] The negative statements about this methodist church, about the US political embrace or the moralistic and male dominated system of power are there for me and the author team is player with them in my opinion. All these possible conclusions and side stories are neither important for the gameplay, nor for the storytelling as a whole, but they can be followed through into arbitrary depths. This must be intended, because otherwise, we would not have a seven pages long background story about 'homeschooled Gwen' or the heartbreaking theories about the reasons for the suicide of Jennie Bancroft in the past of this church.
[Mr Creosote] I would just not read any of these stories as criticism of religious communities, but as stories about people with a slight lean towards kitsch.
Though you have already mentioned the 'arbitrary depth' twice now. It seems we have completely different definitions of depth. I would agree that this game has a lot of breadth, meaning that there are more and more and more little stories to discover. None of them has any serious depth, though.
Of Chatting & Narrating
[proc] Cross your heart: Bottom line, Robin & Orchid is a ghost hoax story which has been dressed up with hot topics intelligently. I assume this will be appreciated by the judges.
[Mr Creosote] I doubt it will be received all that well, in spite of the somewhat popular themes. This is less because of the number of the contents of the little stories, but because they are not integrated into the gameplay. The present level (I hardly dare to call it a story) really only boils down to finding one secret door and then opening another visible, but locked door. This is trivial and everything you learn from just following that is just not of any interest.
All this stuff we discussed up until now comes solely from the notebook. Since this plot device is optional, most players will never see all those stories which could be considered interesting (considering a very open-minded reader). I think this was a very bad decision from a design point of view. Everything which one could find interesting is not told in an interactive fashion. Instead, you get these things in lengthy text dumps which the player has to call manually. The present just delivers the trigger keywords – it really has absolutely no other function.
This is not the way to make a motivating game, though, if the interactions are only meant to find out keywords to read the real contents! Especially since this restriction of the keywords is not even logically derived in-game. It just comes from the medium. If you had such a notebook in real life, you could just read it cover to cover to learn everything. In this text adventure, the associated command is blocked with the lame excuse that there is no time to read everything. Though if you had a list of all keywords to look up, you would suddenly indeed have 'the time to read it all'. This is a completely artificial obstruction. Very bad design!
[proc] This matches my impression of the automatic dialogues (i.e. one slice is displayed at every turn without granting the player the option to talk to the NPC) which appear to be useless window dressing. Increasing the gravity of the sitatuation is the perfectly implemented polaroid camera which simply does not make sense to me from a gameplay point of view, other than Robin being a photographer. Maybe I can compare the story to a root which starts at the trunk and ends somewhere in the mud: It branches here and there, sometimes down, sometimes sideways, but in the end, it could be described just as well as a geometrically straight line. Everything, really everything, is just window dressing for me. Nice window dressing, I would like to stress, but of absolutely no hands-on relevance.
[Mr Creosote] Yes, this camera is a game mechanic which probably took hours to implement in this level of detail, but there is absolutely no function to it. At least it somewhat makes basic sense as a piece of the characterisation puzzle: It fits, because photographing implies a pseudo objectivity (conserving situations in seemingly real pictures) and it shows the distanced character of Robin who shies away from experiencing things first hand.
Now that we're talking about it, Robin is the only person who communicates with the player directly anyway. All those impressions of other characters, whether it is Patrick or Aiden, are hardly objective. They are the views of another character, Casey. Robins characterisation at least is not derived from stupid opinions read from a book, but it is told through her interactions with this world. So you coul say that Robin's is the only characterisation performed interactively in this whole game!
It is my strong impression that this game (or let's say its authors) is in love with narrative techniques in general, but as a recipient, I never got the impression that it uses any successfully. Its biggest weakness, uncoupling the storytelling layer from the playable one, cannot be mentioned often enough. These dialogues with NPCs who apparently appear and disappear at random are also one of these issues – I never got the impression to be truly part of this story. This is always a bad sign.
[proc] Okay, so let me ask the all-important question: Does this story work?
[Mr Creosote] Well, this is a very general question and since we never really agreed what 'the story' is, I cannot answer it with a simple yes or no. I think we have already discussed all those notebook stories at length. Concerning the story laid out in the game's present, I will answer with a clear 'no'. For me, the reason is that the game does not show any interest in this plot. At every corner, the game seemed to signpost: 'Everything you are doing is irrelevant!'.
[proc] Not completely: There is a trapdoor to take care of and then to have all this nonsense told to you. The really interesting aspect of the story is its three-dimensional construction and I think this is the conceptual point: abitrary breadth in the sense of anecdotes irrelevant to the plot and deep in the sense of the background to this party, even if this story is simple at heart. The interaction is made up of a large number of objects about which Casey's notebook can tell anecdotes. This is not a new idea, but it can make for an interesting experience. Just that there are already so many of them and following side-stories is a matter of taste. I think the story partly works. I also think at the core it is interactive. What can I say: A nice story which nobody needs, but which is technically very well made.
[Mr Creosote] But now you're just repeating what I already said (apart from your favourite mantra about the depth which I will never agree to): The player's interaction's only function is to feed the plot layer which exists completely uncoupled from the present. Robin & Orchid does not link these layers and therefore does not give the interaction its own function. What remains is just this uncoupled narrative which, to make matters worse, is even told through the eyes of a third party, without the game reflecting on this subjective point of view. Good games which tell a story interactively have all those layers intertwine. Here, the player does not have any influence on the bulk of what is being told. Apart from deciding when to turn the page.
[proc] You're forgetting the tiny puzzles with the fusebox and the shepherd's crook, so you can really let it pass as a small story with interactive fun. The general problem of this game is this idiotic notion of never being forced, but always being allowed. Plot and gameplay-wise.
[Mr Creosote] What fusebox puzzle? I just flipped the switch and that was it. And the trapdoor? I feel like I have seen exactly this puzzle at least a hundred times before already. Even in this very same competition, it can be found in Cardew House and Tex Bonaventure in almost exactly the same form!
[proc] It's tiny puzzles, not real puzzles. Let's not get carried away.
I will just throw this out there. This excellently implemented game is based on the experience that technical prowess and narrative depth are necessary to gather attention. The game delivers both as a service to the community. But it also shows the dangers of switching to such a lane: Personally, I can find neither an interesting plot, nor narrative bang in it. Both is nicely done, not more, not less. A nice game, short or long, just as the player prefers.
[Mr Creosote] Such calculating motives (which I wouldn't dare to imply) would, however, not be a good reason to take a go at a creative medium. Making an smart game or a thrilling story would be good reasons. Robin & Orchid has none of this. It is a big smoke screen with nothing behind. Really more what one would expect of a contract work as opposed to intrinsically motivated authors.