A dimly lit alley. A shadowy figure reclines, briefly illuminated by the glow of a cigarette. Suddenly a gunshot rings out. Bright red lipstick to match a blossoming red stain. A briefcase changes hands and a silhouette melts into the night. A clear cut case of double crossing.
Or is it?
A phrase I have often heard used to describe Loveshack Entertainment’s original and much acclaimed iOS game Framed is “interactive comic book”. And the description is certainly an apt one, albeit selling it short. Picture the standard layout of a comic book: separate panels outline the story frame by frame. A man walks down a hall. He opens a door. He goes down the stairs. A waiting guard points their weapon – trapped!
This is the crux of Framed. You play the game by controlling the narrative, rather than the characters, making it one of the more original and exciting games I’ve come across. And the fact it has puzzles and is fun as all get out doesn’t hurt either.
As the shadowy, comic-like tale is slowly laid out, panels can be moved around, sometimes on the fly, to change the circumstances, alter a character’s fate and progress the story. Narrative is a fluid thing left almost entirely up to the player and it makes for an innovative and engaging game mechanic. With the story unfolding literally at your fingertips, it only takes a few swipes for fate to be changed drastically.
The protagonists of this story – a man in a fedora and a woman in a bowler – appear to be in cahoots, protecting a briefcase of seemingly utmost importance. But a sinister limping man is on their trail and, with narrative playing fast and loose, all may not be what it seems…
Despite the fact all three characters are little more than silhouettes, their actions and personalities are clearly communicated via the beautiful animations that start up each time you get your panels in order and press play. Characters move smoothly across the screen, their actions clean and natural, in a manner that had me recalling the era of rotoscoping. And with a palette of mostly shadowy blues and purples, ubiquitous cigarettes and a jazzy soundtrack punctuated by hi-hats, Framed would be hard-pressed to create a more noir ambience.
Although Framed can be completed in a single sitting, it doesn’t skimp on the puzzles. More than once I found myself lingering on a particular screen for half an hour or more, trying every combination of actions I could think of to keep my characters alive to see the next panel. Even more often than that I would arrange things in a way I knew could only end in failure, just to see what would happen.
It’s also a multitude of little details that make Framed as complex and complete as it is: the fading out of panels as they tell their part of the story. The colour of a wall, hinting at the directions in which a character will run. The slight ripple that runs through panels as you arrange them, showing what order they will play in.
If I have any criticism to offer, it would be the lack of an uninterrupted viewing. It would have been nice, once all the puzzles were solved and the game completed, to have watched the whole story play without pause. Even now, after having played through several times, I have questions: just who was in league with who? What exactly went down at that diner? And whatever could be in that briefcase?
Then again, knowing the definitive answers to these questions would detract from the most important aspect of the storytelling – the player. And this way, there’s nothing stopping me from assuming it was Marsellus Wallace’s soul all along…
Disclosure: A copy of Framed was purchased at retail price from the iOS App Store for the purposes of this review.