Indie Game of the Week 169: Burly Men At Sea

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One of the threads I keep returning to with the Indie Game of the Week feature, mostly incidentally, is how Indie adventure games are always experimenting with storytelling techniques. In particular those that are better served with the interactivity that video games bring, if not necessarily with the same reflex-intensive focus that an action game might have. A popular route, as it were, is the "choose your own adventure" hook of having multiple paths to select between: the player is given agency when a branch in the road is presented, with their choices affecting the rest of the playthrough by a significant (entire new destination) or subtle ("so-and-so will remember what you did") degree.

Burly Men at Sea follows a vaguely The Odyssey-esque nautical shaggy dog tale of three mostly identical bearded fishermen brothers who fish up a sea chart in a bottle one day. The chart itself is empty, but as a local elderly barista tells the trio the idea is that the chart itself invites adventure and fills itself out at the end of the journey. The confused fishermen set out onto the open sea, only for their boat to be consumed by a monstrous whale. So begins their latest story, the opening vignette of figuring out how to escape the whale triggering a series of events determined by the player's previous responses.

The game is designed as such so that the whale can be escaped in one of three ways, and each of those three ways then leads to a binary choice, followed by another, after which the trio converse with an enigmatic sea dragon who drops them back off on their home island just as the new day dawns. To save you some mental math, that's a total of twelve possible endings (1-1-1, 1-1-2, 1-2-1, 1-2-2, 2-1-1, and so on). A different set of responses the following day results in a new adventure with new events, though the sequential nature of the game means the brothers and the NPCs they meet are always cognizant of what has already transpired in an earlier loop. The game uses this foreknowledge to, in effect, remind players of the paths already travelled (through new dialogue) so they might try something different on the next attempt. If the game has anything close to puzzles, it's in the decisions themselves and identifying where the branch may lie: did you try scrolling to the left or the right last time? If you're being antagonised by a monstrous sea creature, what happens if you let it win? The end "results screen," which simply involves the brothers reading their now completed sea chart before adding it to the coffee shop's bookcase and grabbing a fresh one, gives you some idea of where you had a choice to make.

The four icons surrounding the central island represent my choices, in this case: the initial whale encounter, a meeting with a colossal rock golem, running afoul of an underwater predator whose enormous jaws are its only visible feature, and the enigmatic and squiggly sea dragon. Their locations on the map don't seem to matter.
The four icons surrounding the central island represent my choices, in this case: the initial whale encounter, a meeting with a colossal rock golem, running afoul of an underwater predator whose enormous jaws are its only visible feature, and the enigmatic and squiggly sea dragon. Their locations on the map don't seem to matter.

This format does have its drawbacks, of course. For one, you have to repeat a lot of the early content to get back to a later split. If we class the whale as the first act, the binary choice that follows as the second act, and the final binary choice as the third act, then you'll need to see the whale scenario's three results a total of four times each. Each of the second act's results must be seen twice, to see both results of the binary choice that follows. If you also consider the prologue of getting onto the ship and meeting the whale and the epilogue of being dropped off on the initial island, you'll see them both a total of twelve times before you've seen everything else the game has to offer (unless something significantly changes during the twelfth and final route). Each of these micro-adventures is about five to ten minutes each though, so at least the repetitiveness isn't also a massive drain on your time. Burly Men at Sea is also specifically built for touchscreens, ideally suited for iOS, Android, and the Switch. It still operates fine with a mouse, but the mechanics of holding and dragging the left or right sides of the screen to move in those directions can be unusually awkward at times, often snapping back to center at random intervals. This eventually lead to a game-breaking bug, as I indicated a door for the trio to move through at the end of my sixth or seventh adventure, only for the game to hang before they could reach it as the screen had already snapped back in the opposite direction. A weird bug that I'm not sure is applicable to every version of the game, but it served here to eliminate five minutes of progress and I'd no interest in repeating the same events again to "log" them for the sake of the game's final completion state.

The first impression of Burly Men at Sea is of a specific brand of artistic minimalism: a style of design school I'm sure I'm unqualified to identify, but one that uses a lot of geometric shapes for its details. An example would be how two vertically-oriented semi-circles, one larger and darker than the other, are used to represent flames at multiple points in the game. Many of the characters, locations, and background elements you find have a similar simplicity to their appearances. There's music but it's subdued; Burly Men at Sea refers to itself as a "quiet adventure game" and this is reflected in its light visuals, calm audio design, and unhurried animations, even when the current situation is ostensibly perilous. There's something distinctly Wes Anderson-y about the whole enterprise, though it's equally possible the two creators have some shared influences.

The "sea dragon" is a bit on the abstract side, but given its otherworldly presence it's a germane stylistic choice.

Overall, I think I like this game but at the same time it's not quite as inspired as it thinks it is. Branching narratives have been present for so long in Japanese visual novels, for example, that newer examples of that genre have been innovating on ways to deliver alternate story content that are far more mechanically and narratively compelling. To take 428: Shibuya Scramble from a few years back, which had every choice not only change the fate of the current character but any number of the game's other protagonists, so that the player would often change their earlier decisions to avoid inadvertent stalemates or premature game overs. Zero Time Dilemma had an enormous flowchart of decision moments that the player could revisit in any order they wished, to see what might've shaken out after taking a different route. Burly Men at Sea lacks the budget and ambition those games had, of course, and is generally content with a more gentle approach to decision-based storytelling, but it feels behind the curve regardless. All the same, it's charming and undemanding and well-written and probably perfect for those who don't play a lot of narrative video games and might want to, so I find it hard to criticize it too harshly and harder still to dislike.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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