Warning: the following is by necessity somewhat spoilery; though I have tried
to avoid explicit information about the events of the game, reading it may
affect your enjoyment if you haven't played it yet.
Stephen Granade's "Common Ground" is a short, friendly game, more
character-piece and story than puzzle. By giving you the perspective of each of
three protagonists in turn, it sketches in the relationships between members of
a small family, showing you both sides of each point of conflict.
The technique of multiple viewpoints is a nifty one, used here with nuance
and attention to detail. Object descriptions change, and new ones pop in and out
of view, depending on what the character might be expected to notice or
understand. The effect is subtler than the use of the same technique in
"Exhibition" and less broadly humorous than "Being Andrew Plotkin": the
characters are distinguished from each other by smaller variations, a separation
of a few degrees only. Particularly fine is the way different people hear the
*same* bits of conversation differently. Wording, tone, and sometimes even
factual content changes, depending on what is going on.
Likewise subtle is the handling of what you have to do in the game. Most of
the activity is straightforward. There is little that would count as a puzzle;
there are a number of required actions (especially if you are one particular
character), some of which are a bit boring, but this is exactly to the point.
They convey perfectly the irritation of the situation: leading a rather ordinary
life full of small frustrations.
Ultimately, however, all this is in service of presenting a static situation,
and the nuance of game detail is not quite matched by nuance of character depth.
By the end, you perceive how the characters misunderstand and undervalue each
other, but they are still, in essence, rather stock characters: the rebellious
teenage girl, the overworked mother, the slightly boozy stepfather. One can
sympathize with them to a degree, but they don't distinguish themselves with
much particularity. They lack pasts. They lack hobbies, and external interests.
This sort of thing makes it difficult to care deeply about them.
Also problematic, and on similar terms, is the restriction of what one is
allowed to say. Interaction between characters uses the device of TALK TO, which
has been used more and more in recent games, and to good effect in things like
"Kaged," I think. But this is a game that rests upon its interaction between
people, in which the relationships are the whole point; and it is a bit
disappointing not to be able to try certain conversational approaches.
The implementation of the physical environment is likewise a bit
under-immersive. The house doesn't feel like a real house to me; it feels like a
stage set up with a few key props for the drama. What is there is precisely what
must be there, and nothing more.
To all of these criticisms there are two perfectly reasonable objections. One
is that the nature of implementing this game -- one in which three different
characters experience the same events -- severely restricts what one can do,
since a PC cannot be forced to recapitulate the behavior of the NPC in an
earlier scene. The more immersive and fully interactive the game becomes, the
more difficult it is to police player actions in a way that will keep the
The second, less technical and more aesthetic, is that the characters are
constrained by their nature. They are bored, dissatisfied, and just managing to
scrape through in life. Their lack of deep dimension says something about how
they perceive themselves. Likewise, being who they are, they will only say
The effect of all this is a bit like acting out a play -- a somewhat
minimalist play, at that, one of those modern ones with no conceivable happy
ending. It presents the misery and disaffection of suburban life, and constrains
the player character(s) in such a way that none of them really has a chance to
rise above it.
And what of the ending? There is an important decision to be made, and this
is the one point at which you are not, in fact, constrained to one course of
action. You can choose which of two things to do -- but then you are never shown
the outcome of the choice. It is easy enough to imagine what might ensue from
either one, but in the absence of any result at all, it's hard to feel the
significance of the decision. If you feel the power of the choice, it is
entirely because you imagine it yourself -- sketching in implications and likely
outcomes from your own personal experience, drawing on nothing in the game for
I'm not sure that it would have been wise to spell out, either in a detailed
interactive piece or in a cut-scene, what happens the next day or the next week
in lurid detail. Such an addition might have overbalanced the game, taking
attention from the delicacy of the chapters that are already there. But it still
does seem as though it would have been possible -- and would have much
strengthened the game -- to make the decision itself more intense; to set up its
emotional importance to the characters more; to give it, one way or the other,
the force that it ought to have.
What we have, then, is a well-crafted and subtly considered piece that
succeeds in many of its small goals, but possibly fails at the larger one of
involving the player deeply. The story it tells seems abridged and insufficient,
and the characters never entirely free themselves from stereotype. At the same
time, it takes on a challenge rarely met in interactive fiction: it is entirely
a story about nebulous human decisions and personal relationships, without wacky
devices, melodramatic scenes, physical danger and pending disaster.