Getting in Trouble

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I get the impression that not a lot of people have heard of - let alone played - Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. That might not be the case for long, though. The WGA just announced their nominees for best video game writing, and DHSGIT took the dark horse spot. I haven't played, um, any of the competition, except a little bit of Fallout 3, but I'd love to see a well-written indie game like this one take the prize.

I certainly recommend that you give Dangerous High School Girls a look, although it isn't by any means a perfect game. In this interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, author Keith Nemitz stated that "the story is about the culture of small-minded people and how strong, truthfully educated women can improve it." The writing is charming, funny, and does an excellent job of telling that story.

My reservations about the game come from some of the design decisions. Mostly, it's structured like a standard RPG, with semi-random encounters, experience, and character leveling - although it distances itself from any of that terminology. This structure works really well, actually, except that it doesn't allow the player to do any grinding.

In most RPGs, the player progresses the story by exploring a space and completing encounters. Succeeding in an encounter gives the player's party experience, which eventually causes them to become more powerful. Failing in an encounter, typically, does not give the player experience or progress the story (because, typically, it results in a fail-state, forcing the player to restore a saved game). The player, therefore, gets more powerful as the story progresses; later parts of the story open up new areas where the encounters are more difficult, theoretically matching the player's advancement.

Sometimes, though, the player doesn't level up fast enough. That's where grinding comes in. If the encounters become too difficult, the player can take a step back and play through some additional encounters in an easier area, gaining enough experience to tackle the continuation of the story on better terms.

Dangerous High School Girls doesn't have a death-equivalent fail-state, which I like. At least, it looks good on paper, but in practice, it doesn't always work out well. Instead of having to restart when you fail an encounter, you suffer some form of negative reinforcement and then play continues. At best, this negative reinforcement takes the form of a missed opportunity - a chance to have gained experience or some other bonus, while the story continues to progress. Frequently, however, you actually lose a buff or one of the girls in your party. Which makes it easy to find yourself falling behind the difficulty curve, facing encounters that are way out of your league.

Grinding is supposed to provide a way out of this situation. But Dangerous High School Girls takes away lower-level encounters as it opens up new, more difficult areas - or at least, it obscures the lower-level opportunities by putting them in the same space and not distinguishing between encounters of different levels. Add to that the pressure of time continuing to progress with each encounter, whether successful or not, and... well, the bottom line is that I feel like I'm falling further and further behind the more I play, and that my subversive little cadre of girls is becoming more ineffectual rather than more empowered as the story progresses.

Anyway, this post was really just supposed to be a couple of links and a brief review of the game. To sum up, then: worth playing, not perfect, but great writing. You can get a demo from Manifesto, here.

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