Barbetween is a Seltani age written for Shufflecomp but excluded from the final competition because it was impossible to archive. Seltani is an online multiplayer text space that combines Twine-like room and object descriptions with the capacity for live chat and exchanges with other players in the same area.
I’d like to talk about Barbetween, but it’s the kind of piece that benefits a lot from being played in more or less complete ignorance of what’s going to happen, so I really suggest you do that. (It doesn’t take long.)
I played with the song that inspired it on in the background, and that proved to be a good choice.
So in case for some reason you did not take my advice and play this yourself, here’s what happens:
Barbetween is set in a sort of bar between worlds, with esoteric beers on tap. When I was there, these taps were named things like “weird people in college”, “panic attack-filled summer of 2011”, and “breaking the glass tabletop”. You order a drink, but before you’re allowed to drink it, the bartender gives you a sheet of paper and makes you write down “a memory that hurts you”. When you’ve done so, the bit of text you’ve just submitted replaces the name of whatever beer you just ordered.
That’s more or less it, really: the musician comes and plays the title song, and you can sit there and drink your beer, and after a while you’re allowed to leave. But the main thing you’re invited to do is offer up this piece of (presumably fairly personal) text.
At least in my case (maybe I’m dense) I didn’t immediately realize what it was going to be used for, and that the things on the taps were the names of other people’s experiences, previously submitted. So I found it rather striking when one of the tap labels was erased and my own text was written in.
Barbetween isn’t the first mostly-choice-based game I’ve played that solicited some piece of personal freeform input. Ex Nihilo asks what you might say on encountering another deity for the first time; Their Angelical Understanding asks for something you’d like to exorcise or set on fire (I can’t recall the exact words, but it’s in the context of putting something into the flames). But the text in Ex Nihilo isn’t particularly personal, while the text in Their Angelical Understanding doesn’t have any visible mechanism to be shared with anyone else. Barbetween ups the ante, because it makes such a point of being in a shared space and you know that someone else is going to read what you’ve written. It claims that it’s not going to associate that text with your user ID — but if you’re concerned about the privacy of it, you have to ask yourself whether you trust the author.
Or of course you can lie, or be flippant.
I do, in fact, trust the author, and I see no sign that that trust is being abused. But it makes for an interesting moment, a moment that resonated with playing Deadbolt. The game becomes a ritual context in which to share something that you probably wouldn’t normally go around telling to strangers. And there’s something resonant about the idea that you’re drinking someone else’s bitter regrets as an exchange for your own. I dunno. I’m really interested in games that play in this space.
There’s one design decision I’m not sure about. When I was picking a tap from which to drink first, I naturally picked the tap that sounded the most interesting and powerful to me (because at that point I thought that as a result of picking that beer, I was going to be told some more details about that interesting/powerful thing). But the result was that Barbetween erased the tap I liked best, and replaced it with my painful memory! So it seems like that’s kind of an unfortunate negative feedback loop that destroys the more resonant things and leaves the banal ones behind.
Or… I don’t know. Maybe it’s best that the strongest brews be offered for the most limited time.