Ib is a really cool game and you should go download it immediately!
Ib opens with Ib and her family going to visit an art gallery. You wander around, talking to people and reading the titles of the paintings.
Ib is a young girl and so a lot of those will be full of ??? when she doesn’t know the word (a really clever idea, though I wish it’d be garbled text or something to really put you in the same position of reading it without being able to make sense of it). Upon reaching a particular painting, everyone vanishes, the music changes and things start getting weird.
The opening really uses the interactivity of a videogame to great effect. Re-examining a painting titled “The Coughing Man” and seeing only the same text, I walked onward only to be startled by the sound of someone coughing sharply. The window, which previously told me it was bright outside, was now fogged. Going downstairs, the door out is locked, the window is locked, and examining the second, also locked window makes blood flow down from above. This is an RPGmaker game, so the graphics for all of this are naturally are terrible, but it manages to work anyway.
What’s interesting is that nothing actually harms you at this point, it’s just taking advantage of the fact videogames are minimalist, so any change seems like a big deal, and the generally spooky atmosphere. And even when you’re told to go enter another world, even when that other world requires walking into the floor painting of the horrific sea monster, I found I could turn around and walk back up, so I wasn’t in real danger yet.
Then suddenly the walls are screaming you’re a thief and retreating back to the stairs you discover they’re gone, and when you press onward hands reach from nowhere to attack you.
It sets the stage quite well, in sum.
In fact, I wish there’d been less things that can kill you. Once damage is introduced, so is healing, and giving a clear mechanic quickly made me fearless, because I knew exactly what would happen if I hit the wrong thing. There’s also copious save points, so even if there’s no way to heal, you can just save at full health and explore, and even multiple save slots in case you’re worried about making a mistake on a choice, which is even more of a problem. (There’s also a particular part where you can fail with one character and keep going, but I reset to try to save him. It’d have been better if I’d been forced to continue instead, with some sort of autosave.) The game counters the known health issue a little by having a couple things do more than a single damage – screwing up one puzzle just killed me on the spot, and there’s another point where making the wrong choice gets you killed instead of losing some of your health, but for the most part there’s just lots of things that can take off one chunk of health. Even just having fewer dangers balanced with less healing and save points would have worked out better, since it’d have made me try harder to avoid them. (Also, probably shouldn’t have had the second, surprise moving enemy require me to continue exploring the room – it did freak me out at the time, but it also quickly desensitized me to the enemy by requiring I face it immediately. When it first attacked, I panicked and fled, but I had to face it to complete the room. I would have been far more terrorized by the next part if I hadn’t experienced their terrible pathfinding ability in that room.) Throughout the game, the things that scared me most were those that didn’t actually harm me. The occasionally bloody heads terrified me at every appearance, while the room where every step hurt me quickly became just a problem to be solved.
The puzzles are interesting. I liked them – they’re not very sensible for the most part, often being of the type where interacting with one thing will make something else across the room pop out to grab, but the whole place isn’t supposed to make sense, and the bits that needed reasoning generally made sense to me. They aren’t particularly difficult, but they generally went by quickly and were bizarre enough that they weren’t predictable enough to be dull.
One interesting decision is that you find you’re not totally alone. I came across a fallen person who turned out to be still alive, and I was actually able to help him. I’m ambivalent about the execution – he adds to the gameplay by being able to decipher the ??? words for me, which was nice, but otherwise he mostly pops in to be chatty, which makes it harder to be afraid. I think it’d have worked if his dialogue had been more fearful and reinforced the atmosphere. We meet up with a third person not long after, then get split apart, which worked well, and then he discovers that the third person isn’t actually a person, which worked even better, especially when there’s still no way to communicate…but then, we hook up again and the monster is quickly kicked out of the party while we proceed together. There is some really cool bit where we initially enter a room that’s full of rabbits and a big painting of one that happens to have red eyes, and the guy gets all upset about how disturbing it is and it just seems like he’s on edge from the place. When split up and with him as the viewpoint character, though, it’s filled with creepy dolls and the painting is the creepiest of all of them. The room contains a note about how people may begin to hallucinate under stress, suggesting he’s actually far closer to being corrupted by the place than we knew. (It’s somewhat undermined by the fact the dolls appear to be the actual thing, and Ib is the one being crazy and seeing bunnies, because she seems the more stable of the two. Maybe it’s actually meant to be that Ib is worse off than he is, but it’s not really clear.) I wish there’d been a lot more of that sort of thing. There’s a lot of shifting environment in the game, but minimal playing with different perceptions.
I found the third character’s handling the most questionable, though – we don’t really get proper creepy mileage out of her because just when the guy realizes she’s a rogue painting and she starts acting weird with Ib, the groups meet up again and he can stop her. She reappears later but you can’t really interact with her – she screams at you to leave, but your only option is to run further and then destroy her painting, killing her. What’s weird is the game seems to want to give you the chance to be friends with her, but your interactions are incredibly minimal and there’s only one real pathway that you can take with her. The optional endings with her are actually quite good and tragic, and I wish there’d been more of that during the main game. It also took me a while to realize she was supposed to be a kid like Ib and not an adult, which changes how she comes off a lot.
Which brings me to the next thing…there are a lot of endings, which is cool, which are half determined by invisible counters being tallied throughout the game, which is a bit annoying. If you make it to the end, the choice then gives you two different endings. An earlier (optional and easily missed) conversation, not too far back, determines if you get the third. The rest require replaying. The game is short enough that’s not a real hardship, but the invisible counters factor means that you have to do more than just change your conversation answers to get all of them and there’s really no clue in the game that those are being tallied up at all. The game itself is also pretty static, so there’s not much other replay value to it. But it’s short, which helps.
There’s also some cool fake screenshots floating around for the game!
And even some actual animation: