Perhaps you’ll guess where this is going when I say that I feel the need to start this post by pointing out that I like Squinky as a creator. Quite a bit in fact: I praised their Quing’s Quest for Haywire, and more recently I really enjoyed 36 questions.
Unfortunately, I like them much the same way I like Tale of Tales: I find their lectures and talks extremely interesting, and I admire the intentions and ideas behind their games a lot more than I end up enjoying most of their actual games. (That’s where the similarity ends, by the way. The ways in which they ‘fail’ differ greatly) And Conversations We Have In My Head is one of the clearest examples of that trend.
Leigh Alexander was very kind on the game, dwelling more on the setup than on how it plays out in practice. Or maybe it just worked better for her than it did for me, I don’t know. (Edit: Mattie Brice also seems to have got more out of it than I did. I like her post more than I like the game.) But she’s not wrong when she describes how interesting and ripe with possibilities the idea is: the protagonist Quarky – a transparent avatar of Squinky themself – talking to their ex after years since they last saw each other. Although it’s mostly a one-way conversation, from Quarky to ex, the player can roleplay the latter and interrupt the monologue by offering his thoughts.
As with all games with such simple gameplay – if it can even be called gameplay – it lives and dies by its writing. And Conversations mostly just dies.
The biggest issue is that it fails to make its subject matter at all interesting for the player, and it’s not the subject matter’s fault: Quarky-Squinky obviously lived a unique life, and has a lot to tell. But the way they tells it comes across more like a shopping list of bullet points about their life.
“Turns out I’m actually genderqueer. Figured it out about four, five years ago?” …good for you? There are so, so many things they could tell us about that experience (How did they find out? Were they immediately ok with it, or was it a rocky road to accepting it? How did their friends and family react?), and to be fair you can get a little more information if you press Quarky about it, or if you find the one or two slightly more interesting “routes”, but for the most part everything is still presented in that awkward, shopping-list kind of way.
To be clear, I don’t mean to belittle their experiences. On the contrary, I think that, if anything, the game doesn’t do their experiences justice. For an autobiographical work, even as small as it is, there is so little insight, so little earnest opening-up, and almost no effort seems to have gone into making the player care about that story. And I know that because Squinky themself has told roughly the same story in multiple different occasions (for instance at GDC last year, and in 36 Questions—in fact their entire work, both fiction and non-fiction, tends to revolve around those two or three subjects that marked their life) and it’s always resulted in a far more powerful, energetic or captivating narration.
This time around, while it may have been cathartic for them, it left me cold. Even the ending is awkward and abrupt: it’s almost as if they had run out of things to say, and recognized they had been rambling on a bit anyway, so better stop there.
And it’s a shame, because the setup for the game is promising, and the way it is structured could easily lead to interesting results, with just some more space to better explore the subject matter. But this is not it. Just go play 36 Questions, it does a much better job at pulling off the same idea. Instead of letting us imagine whatever relevant past experiences Quarky and the boy share and why we should care, we get to create those memories and develop that attachment as we play.