HM is on sabbatical for June and guest writers are filling the void. This week it’s one of HM’s favourite Twine authors, David T. Marchand, who is the brains behind Úrquel: The Black Dragon, Eioioio and the sublime When Acting As A Wave.
Joaquín Guellada recently wrote about Se Busca, the last (and as far as I know, only) game by the enigmatic Sofía Arquero. He described it as “a rather uncomfortable combination (una combinación algo incómoda) of those adventure games whose arbitrary designs knew to dig their own grave and the management games that are so ashamed of what they are they don’t even want to be called by their name.”
Before him, Karen Benotti praised in the game “the double, implausible influence of Monkey Island and the Gods Will Be Watching demo.” A simple enough observation which Guellada merely parrots, though in an angrier jargon.
Essentially, both reviewers agree: the game revolves around managing your time and inventory, developing strategies that allow you to stay afloat, while at the same time it asks you to solve puzzles that involve talking to people, collecting clues and combining items to accomplish your goals. This hybridization may lead us to suspect a certain kinship with Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor. We’ll quickly find out that no such affinity exists.
First time I knew of Se Busca was in 2011. It wasn’t yet called Se Busca. It appeared as a prototype available for download on the (now defunct) ADVA forums, with almost no explanatory text, posted by the user sofiaarquero who until then hadn’t participated in any of the site’s usual discussions.
There was a lot of content for what you’re used to in that kind of prototype, but the thing looked like it was held together with Scotch tape: the window minimized at random intervals, the sound could suddenly disappear, the English version suffered an acute case of “man door hand hook car door,” and any attempt to take a screenshot crashed the program immediately (this last thing persists in the most recent version, which is now for sale). The main menu announced, in a way that even then was already trite, that it was the first game with the capacity to deal with serious themes and evoke profound emotions.
The prototype had a certain amount of popularity. In a few hours, the forum thread reached twelve pages of fifteen responses each (many of which, admittedly, were from people who hadn’t been able to launch the executable). Everybody had a compliment or critique to offer. That very week, Arquero published a beta version with a dynamic system of trophies for doing certain things, “improved” graphics and lots of bug fixes, which she playfully subtitled “A game with shifting cheevos.”
Quite similar to that version is the one Arquero began distributing commercially a few weeks ago. It now has a more powerful character generator (or so I’m told), a full soundtrack, a PDF manual and the omission (perhaps merciful) of the dynamic trophies. I haven’t been able to get a copy of the first prototype, which I remember to be a bit more charming (though at this point who knows).
Before attempting any sort of analysis of this strange work, it might be convenient to give some idea of the general plot.
The story and the stories
So what’s Se Busca about? Good question.
First time I played it, back in 2011, it was about a Psychology student named Clara. Right before dying, Clara’s father reveals her mother didn’t die at birth, as he had always maintained, but she had abandoned them when Clara was still a baby. Clara starts the game determined to find her mother and find out the reason behind her leaving.
On my second playthrough, it was about a boy who works fulltime delivering empanadas, Héctor. His favorite uncle goes missing one day, and no one in the family goes looking for him or even dares talking about it. No one but Héctor, of course.
Last week I played it again and this time it was about an old lady, Marta, who fights her several medical conditions while she travels the city looking for the kitty that ran away from her apartment.
There lies one of Se Busca’s main appeals: the multiplicity of its plot. The game starts with a rather overwhelming sequence of menus and ambiguous intro scenes in which our decisions determine the conflicts and characters to be developed in the course of the work. I don’t know how many stories and characters the game has. I suspect it’s many more than I played and many less than you’d guess after watching the complicated menus the game greets you with. I’ll talk only of the three characters I’ve played so far.
Clara wants to find her mother, Héctor is looking for his uncle, Marta wants her kitty back. They all know what they’re looking for is in this city, and they all have to travel a lot if they are to succeed. The common outline for all stories is already plain: the tireless search for an individual through the delicate traces they’ve left behind all over the city where they went missing. At first, a brief allusion or a subtle tremor when someone mentions them. Eventually, multiple splendors and clues telling us our whole adventure’s coming to an end. It’s easy to think of Sofía Arquero as an avid follower of Mir Bahadur Ali’s work.
Some choices during the intro menus are pretty transparent. Others, pure mystery. Some elements seem to get chosen at random? I didn’t experiment enough to know exactly how it works. I still don’t know if each goal is inherent to each character or if, by playing with the intro, the same character can have different goals over the course of several playthroughs.
Part of the mystery element may even come from the bugs. Back when I played Héctor in 2011, I’m pretty sure some dialogs and graphics belonged, by mistake, to the previous Clara story, as if some lost variable had forgotten to reset. Other times, the recycling of elements is deliberate. Sometimes it’s even brilliant: Héctor’s boss asking him to generate more profit for the business and Clara’s professor trying to inspire her thirst for knowledge both give the same speech word for word (social commentary?), and it was fun seeing in Marta’s story several empanada-related objects in the strangest of contexts.
Many inventory items remain identical while playing diverse roles in puzzles from several stories. Which reminds me, there are more things to comment about Se Busca than its narrative peculiarities.
Pains of a hybrid
I started this piece with the story out of habit, but long before seeing how Se Busca’s characters and plots work, the player uncovers the particularity of its mechanisms.
While attempting to convince her aunt to tell her where her father kept his diary, Clara had to dedicate a considerable amount of time and effort to the maintenance of her academic performance. In order to find his missing uncle, at a certain point Héctor needed to get into a concert whose ticket he could only afford if he had the money he would only possess if his empanadas reached their destinations at the expected time. And don’t even get me started on Marta looking for her cat without ever forgetting the hours at which she had to take each of her pills.
Se Busca constantly insists on its double nature. Its story moves forward through the puzzles we solve, generally common puzzles we’d expect from any graphic adventure, but none of those can be solved if we forget to get our lives organized, resource-managed. Get your shit together and only then combine these two items from your inventory. Organizing your life is like a constant puzzle that’s always running in the background, defining the context of each of your actions. Where most graphic adventures give us characters who seem not to have any life outside the main quest, Se Busca won’t let us forget that outside life.
It also doesn’t fall for the obvious temptation of making us administer our most basic survival (at least not with the characters I played so far). It’d be easy to make a game where different puzzles are interrupted by the requirement to manage your food so you don’t die from starvation. Se Busca instead gives every character a very specific thing to worry about so their life keeps on going while they solve their personal mystery: neither Héctor nor Clara have any of the health issues that haunt Marta, neither Marta nor Héctor need any study to give their lives meaning, neither Clara nor Marta get most of their income by working like Héctor.
If I’m not mistaken, the proper execution of such an experiment places the author under two obligations: one, that all possible generated stories have a sufficiently unifying core giving sense to the work and justifying its existence, and two, that the whole story-set has enough variety to justify its multiplicity, and thus not have the player asking if it wouldn’t have been better to simply choose the story that illustrates its point best, and use just that one.
Arquero fulfils the first, I’m wondering how far she achieves the second. In other words: the stories are so obsessed with the theme of searching someone that sometimes all searches seem the same. If you liked the first story you played, the next ones you’re going to like the same way and probably won’t add much. If the first one didn’t do it for you, the next ones will disappoint you in equal measure.
In a more formal note it’s also worth noting that the puzzle difficulty sometimes (only sometimes) oscillates a lot without much point, and some elements we’re asked to manage (especially in the case of Clara’s academic performance) could be a lot better balanced so the experience flows in more interesting ways along with the plot.
The cleverness of the move
I don’t want, however, to suggest the game’s defects overcome its virtues. There are traces of genius, as anyone who has played Marta’s story can attest – being both horrified and marveled by the game when it informs us of a certain pill we forgot to take and bestows upon us the responsibility of controlling our character’s lungs in one of the game’s more despairing moments.
My first impression, so long ago now, was that Arquero was mixing ingredients that had nothing to do with each other. Today I see the cleverness of the move:
Graphic adventures are games where losing is rare, and most of the time we’re looking for ways to win. Management games, instead, only have winning states when we reach certain arbitrarily assigned goals, while most of the time is dedicated to avoid failure. By combining those elements, Se Busca gives us at the same time the nervous possibility of losing everything if we make the wrong choice, and the smooth path of uncovering a mystery where there’s no failure, only more or less time to find out how to solve it.
Se Busca is one of those works whose flaws can bother us on a personal level, but only because we deeply feel how close it gets to some kind of perfection.