The Terror Aboard the Speedwell

Creator: Javy Gwaltney (Illustration by Elizabeth Simins)
Genre: Interactive Fiction (Horror)
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Special Edition Release: September 2014 (about 3 years, 8 months ago)
Where to Buy: On itch.io

 

Lo-Fi Sci-Fi
Ask gamers where they buy games digitally these days, and they’ll name a number of places. Xbox Live, Steam, Playstation Network, Battle.net, the Nintendo eShop – the list goes on. So many digital platforms exist to buy and play games now, that it becomes easy to remain complacent within the one or two places one may visit, not realizing there’s still a wide world of video games to explore elsewhere. While some of the services already listed serve specific interests and remain closed off, there are other storefronts that thrive by remaining independent and open. For people who may be daunted by the way a big-name distributor runs their services, or for those who are looking for something different, a good place to go may be itch.io.

Itch bills itself as a platform for independent developers. People who want to host their games on the platform can operate their page as they see fit, and sell games at a price they prefer, including pay-what-you-want options. Running their stores this way gives the impression of a personal touch – something that is often lost in the standardized method of most distributors. A wide variety of games can be found on Itch, too. There are bigger games, such as Tacoma, but there are also grassroots exclusives that can’t be found anywhere else. These often come from hobbyists, people with a passion for video game storytelling, and experienced developers looking for something different.

A great example of what can be found exclusively on Itch can be seen with Javy Gwaltney’s The Terror Aboard the Speedwell. This game does horror in a way some might not expect – through having the player read text. The player reads as the situation unfolds, and at end of each screen, they’re expected to pick a choice. Sometimes this means choosing where to head to next, but can just as easily mean who lives and who dies in the story. It’s kind of like playing a visual novel, without the visuals. Or playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but stripped down to its barest elements. With 60 endings to find, and each playthrough taking about 45 minutes, plus a few pieces of downloadable content giving interactive backstories to several characters, there’s a lot of replayability for those who are looking for it.

Of course, this isn’t the kind of game for everyone. People who prioritize gameplay over story might be out of their element. Also, the lack of freedom can feel stifling for some, because unlike text adventures such as Zork, there is no manual text entry. The player can only choose from the given options on screen, whether they like any of them or not.

However, for the many who are interested, the story is what matters most, and Speedwell’s story is worth the time investment. It concerns an exploratory team being sent to Earth long after humanity has abandoned it. While surveying their surroundings, the crew encounters horrors right out of Alien and worse – infection spreads, crew members turn on each other, and those who aren’t dead and beaten to a pulp by the end of the story might wish they were. Players take part by choosing one of the two playable characters, Julia or Zoe, and become the newest member of the crew, trying to find her footing in the midst of all of this chaos and disaster.

Some might have a problem with this because, really, Alien-like stories are commonplace. Everything from Event Horizon, to Dead Space, to the film adaptation of Doom has done something like it. The interesting part is that even though the stereotypes are there (the military jargon, nicknames like “Meat,” and the topic of sex seemingly at the edge of every conversation, among other things), the story and the characters are still interesting. Speedwell is a good example of a story that uses well-worn territory to its benefit, using what’s familiar to help people understand what’s so special about this particular tale.

Written in Twine, a development tool that can be used to tell interactive stories without having to code anything, Speedwell is also a good example of the alternate routes that exist for people looking to break into game-making without knowing how to code. It still requires a lot of work – the game, at over 50,000 words, is novel-length, and editing that amount of text to keep it consistent, especially with branching story paths, is not easy. However, for someone who might prefer that kind of challenge to the headaches of coding, that might be all the push they need.

Speedwell released in 2014, and garnered some attention specifically for how effectively it uses horror and gore. To best experience this game, it’s necessary to turn off the lights and put in some noise-cancelling earbuds. Setting the mood properly for Speedwell is important, because if the player is constantly distracted, or has to keep putting it down and picking it up, the ability to be engrossed in the text becomes that much harder, making the story difficult to absorb. Playing it through in one sitting is recommended, including the DLC, if possible.

Another element that makes Speedwell work is the well-written text. Gwaltney’s prose is sparse, vivid, and full of little moments that can make the player grow closer to these characters. Like reading a constantly evolving book, the words sometimes grapple with the player, dangling obvious choices and seemingly sensible solutions, only for the player to then have to pay the price that would realistically accompany those options.

This may be annoying to some people. Just as many legacy problems of choice-based games may get under people’s skin here or elsewhere. Not all of the choices matter as much as they should, and sometimes there’s a disconnect between how the choice is conveyed, and how it plays out. But fans of adventure games and bigger budget experiences have long dealt with these problems. Just as it’s inevitable there will be a few typos, these issues will always be there, as one person’s doubt, is another person’s lie.

The Terror Aboard the Speedwell is a different kind of indie than many gamers may be used to. There is no ESRB rating, there is no Nintendo Seal of Quality. This is grassroots independent development, occupying the same space as fan-made sequels and games made with RPG Maker. But that’s not a knock against anything – exploring this avenue to tell stories and create experiences is as valid as spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make a large console game. Oftentimes, grassroots independent development is a springboard into something more. Corpse Party became its own franchise after starting off in RPG Maker, after all.

In addition to the number of games he already hosts on Itch, Javy Gwaltney also works as an associate editor at Game Informer, and is working with his team at Light Machine on a visual novel due out in June called Distress. Successfully crowdfunded back in 2015, Distress looks to use was accomplished with games like Speedwell and take them to the next level. The use of visuals and music appears to be more ambitious than previous works, including The Right Side of TownDoes this mean that Distress will get more attention than Speedwell and Gwaltney’s other titles? Most likely, but that doesn’t mean Distress will be any better or worse. Titles like Speedwell are worth checking out for what they can deliver. They help show, in their lo-fi, scrappy way, how vast the scope of gaming development can be, and places like itch.io provide a really good way to see a greater sense of this landscape, away from the trappings of AAA production. Sometimes, this kind of insight is needed for games like Speedwell to even exist.

And that’s why you may have missed it.

Do you want me to cover a specific game? Let me know via Twitter.

Or email me at dcichocki@tiltingwindmillstudios.com and I’ll take it into consideration.

Custom header edited by Brett Stewart.

A version of this post can be found here.