Narrative adventure games have long stuck to a familiar pattern which essentially mimic choose your own adventure books. Players are almost always asked to make a choice that will move the story forward, be it selecting a certain response or carrying out a specific action, with that decision then affecting the flow of the story. At its most basic Big Bad Wolf’s episodic title The Council is like that, but this is also a game that is looking to experiment and add new elements to push the genre as a whole forward.
The Council puts players in the shoes of Louis de Richet, a person who finds himself in the company of some of the 18th century’s most illustrious luminaries including George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. You’re in such company due to being invited to an island by a mysterious figure who seems to have a great deal of influence in global politics. The reason for the invite is that Louis’ mother, herself a well-respected figure in the story, has disappeared on the same island, and the game begins as Louis steps onto the island’s wharf to investigate.
Big Bad Wolf’s way of trying to evolve narrative games is through what they’ve dubbed the Social Influence system. Through this system Louis has certain skills of observation and speech that can help discover things. At the beginning you choose Louis’ own past career, with the options being diplomat, occultist, or detective. In my case I went for diplomat as I felt using words would be a good weapon in the environment. Choosing this role opened up a skill branch where skills like Conviction and Politics appeared. Upgrading these meant Louis would appear confident in front of people and have knowledge of current events in the world. However this then locked off skills in the occultist and detective branches, meaning analyzing scenes would be much more difficult instead.
The Social Influence system is most prominent when speaking to other characters, and it’s here where you start to see the depth. Each character has their own immunities and weaknesses in conversations. For example servants are weak to phrases considered full of conviction, while certain other characters aren’t impressed in the slightest. You have to discover each character’s attributes while speaking to them or observing them. Even if you do know a person’s strength and weakness you may not be able to act on it, depending on how you’ve acted previously.
During each chapter in the episode Louis has a limited number of points to use where his skills can be deployed, so there’s always the sense of whether it is worth spending a couple of points to use a conviction skill on a servant, or wait and use the etiquette skill on another character. Either could net some instant results, but lead to more negative consequences later. Additionally Louis’ action and inaction will unlock character traits that the other characters will remember, which in turn affect their dealings with you.
The conversations themselves are minigames in their own right. When trying to get through a confrontation you’ll have a few chances to say the right things in an effort to get the best possible result for Louis. At the same time any blunders made will be picked up by the other character and they can turn hostile or at least lose some respect for Louis. Failing will also lock Louis out of gaining information or an ally he may have need of in the future. Outside of conversations Louis will have to make other choices like providing a distraction to help someone, or speak to someone even though he may lose out on something more fun. Every action Louis takes will have a reaction, with some being strongly apparent while others play out much later in more subtle ways.
You can explore a couple sections of the world in the first episode and during this time find consumables that will help, like one that can restore points or another that will reveal someone’s immunity, and further still something that will allow you to use a skill for free. Looking for these in turn allows you to take in the majestic surroundings. The environments are incredibly well put together with a sweeping entrance hall for the mansion, with smaller yet impressive rooms off to the side.
A lot of detail has been put into the game with every painting that adorn the walls in the mansion being accurate replicas of many classic paintings, many of which are tied to religious situations and with hidden meanings in the context of The Council. One criticism is sometimes the voice acting feels a little off with the tone of voice not always being what you expect, and there are a few moments where the delivery feels a little flat.
The first episode of The Council very much acts as a tutorial to get to grips with the Social Influence system as well as being an introduction to some of the cast of characters. The Mad Ones’ episode lays the foundation of a potentially intriguing mystery narrative, part An Inspector Calls, part Murder on the Orient Express. The Social Influence system, if implemented well through the rest of the episodes, really could be a game changer for narrative adventures, evolving a genre that has needed fresh ideas for a while.
Note that for episodic games we now only score the season as a whole, and not the individual episodes.