Rally Your Friends and Face The Yawhg, A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Game With Artwork by Emily Carroll
“Hey,” I called to my partner. She looked up from her WoW dailies. “When you’re at a good spot for a break, want to play this game I’m reviewing? With me?”
I’d already played twice through The Yawhg, a collaboration between comic artist Emily Carroll and game developer Damian Sommer. Alone, a single playthrough takes only twenty minutes or so, beginning to end. But it wasn’t enough, even though the charming artwork and haunting prose had been satisfying on their own. I needed to try again. In six weeks, the game told me, the Yawhg would come to destroy the town. I had seen it before. I hadn’t been ready then. I could do it on my own, but as the game had made clear, impending doom is something better faced together.
“I can play now. What’s the link?” my partner asked, assuming that she’d need to download something.
“No, no,” I said. “Just pull up a chair.”
“I thought we’re playing together.”
“We are. See, it says, ‘If you wish to play with multiple people, have them sit in front of the screen alongside you.’” I pointed this out in the readme file, as well as the rule we couldn’t adhere to: If it is currently light outside, wait until it is dark out. If you live close to a polar region, this may take a while, depending on the time of year. We glanced out the window at the summer sun, shining unendingly down on the harbor of Reykjavík. I had a deadline. The game would have to forgive us for not waiting.
She pulled up a chair, and I found myself unexpectedly nostalgic. The Yawhg is an old fashioned game, comprised of nothing but still images and text (as well as a gorgeous soundtrack by Ryan Roth). Buzzing digital sounds accompany the words as they appear, hearkening back to the text adventures of yore. Having someone sit beside me at the keyboard made me think of my childhood, when my little brother would point excitedly at the screen as we played Star Trek: 25th Anniversary together. I thought of the tiny apartment my partner and I first shared, back in my college days, when we’d take turns playing Neverwinter Nights and Alpha Centauri, side by side. Backseat gaming doesn’t happen often now, not in a home of PC devotees, and not with online multiplayer so easily accessible. And I’ve never had a game specifically instruct me to ask someone else to pull up a chair.
“So what do we do?” she asked.
I nodded at the four player characters — two women, two men, two white, two of color. Nameless, and without assigned personalities. “We take turns sending them to different locations around town. You’ll either gain or lose stats based on the choices you make. We keep at it until the Yawhg shows up.”
“What’s the Yawhg?”
She raised an eyebrow. “What stats should I focus on?”
I shrugged again. “I don’t know.”
She sighed. “You do so.”
I pointed at the the screen. “They don’t know.”
I hadn’t known either, when I first played. I had gone through blindly, making choices without much forethought. The townsfolk don’t know how to face the Yawhg anymore than the player does, and if they are aware of its encroaching arrival, they don’t seem to care. They’re too concerned with chopping wood and getting drunk and dealing with tricksy magical creatures. You know, all the everyday things that get in the way.
It ended badly for me, the first time. I can still see the word “DOOMED” sticking angrily out of the text. I cringed as I read it. Before the credits rolled, I knew I had to try again. I knew what was coming, and I’d be ready for it this time. I’d make better decisions. I’d be more prepared. But again, the townsfolk went about their business. A little wiser, perhaps, thanks to my choices (though the story had been randomized), but still caught up in trivialities. The Yawhg was a distant worry. I survived that time, but my victory was grim.
“Oh, fine,” she said. “All right, I’ll…go to the Alchemy Tower.”
I selected the Alchemy Tower, and read the text aloud as it appeared. “’One day, all the alchemists decide to take a break from work and instead throw a cantrip party.’” We laughed. And we laughed through the other options, too, though we also grimaced, and grumbled, and made faces of dramatic concern. But our theatrics died down once the Yawhg came, and we saw how we had fared. We became somber. We had done okay, but still, it wasn’t enough.
My partner leaned forward on her chair, folding her arms across her knees. “Can we try again?”
The Yawhg is two things. In mechanics, it’s like a board game played on screen, right down to the four characters colored in red, blue, yellow, and green. Move your piece, take some points, get an encounter, make a choice, rinse, repeat, start the round over. Played alone, it’s akin to a shortform visual novel with stats-based challenges. Played together, it brings out all the camaraderie of a tabletop session (my partner pointed out that it would be great fun with friends on the couch, handing a controller back and forth). She took risks I wouldn’t, and vice versa, and we both said things along the lines of “are you sure?” more than once. Much as I love multiplayer, there is something different about being able to sit beside the person you’re playing with, to see their face as they laugh and think along with you. It’s delightful.
In story, The Yawhg is a gentle morality play about a community in the path of an unstoppable calamity. The first time through, my mind instantly jumped to the Moore tornado, to Hurricane Sandy, to the pictures of my brother salvaging the remains of ruined houses in Japan after the Tohoku tsunami. The message was obvious, and timely. Live your life, but know your strengths, and when the time comes, use them to do good. It might not be enough, but at least you’ll have tried.
We played again, but we were in strategy mode this time, min-maxing our stats and discussing our next moves at length. I felt as if we were cheating, that by knowing what was coming, we were sidestepping the lesson. But no, I thought, as the Yawhg drew close. This, ideally, is what communities do. They learn from the tragedies of their forebears. They pick up, rebuild, and try to do better next time. And though we were focused on our stats, we hadn’t reduced the game to bare-bones number crunching, either. Our characters, those nameless blank slates, had taken on lives of their own. The blue woman was brilliant, though a bit prickly. The yellow man was sociable, and charming, and didn’t like to work hard. The green man was a little unfocused, but always put in an honest day of work, and did his best to be a good person. The red woman was our superhero. She kicked all of the ass.
We didn’t just survive. We triumphed. We flourished. As bright colors and sunny skies appeared on screen, my partner and I smiled at each other. We held hands while we watched the epilogue go by. I turned off my computer after the story faded away. I was content, short as the game had been. The Yawhg is not a full meal. It’s a mug of tea and a warm cookie. Sometimes that’s all you need. And like all tea and cookies, it’s best when shared with someone you care about.