The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)
Birdland is a sizable Twine story about 14-year-olds at a summer camp, social skills, first crushes, and a sort of science-fictional strand. It took me somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes to read. (I keep meaning to time myself properly on these things and then I wind up getting interrupted somehow and not doing so. Maybe rough estimates are still useful?)
I really enjoyed this game. Hennessy has a history of work that toys with the structure of choice and presents characters who think unlike people. In Birdland, the main antagonists are bird creatures who appear to the protagonist in dreams, demanding an accounting of how various social interactions are supposed to play out. Alternating with the dreams are scenes of the protagonist just going about her daily life at a summer camp: trying not very successfully to learn to canoe, hanging out with her friends. It’s enormously endearing.
So far as I could tell, the plot is mostly linear but with some ongoing characterization consequences: things that you do in the dream state set your stats for the next day, determining what you’re able to do then. Options outside your personality scope are greyed out for that day, and all stats-based options are marked as such, whether you are able to do them or not. Many of those actions lead to similar outcomes, but shade things slightly differently.
I think it was a good call to include this feature and to show the mechanics clearly. Even the small amounts of perceivable consequence inflected the piece with a stronger sense of agency: I’m not sure that it was ever possible to fork the plot in any meaningful way, but I always felt like I was doing something with those choices.
The separation into dream-time and day-time also made a clear distinction between when we are setting our personality stats and when we are controlled by them. This is a thing that comes up so often that I will probably write a separate article about it at some point. But essentially, in a lot of games with a personality model (including but not limited to most Choice of Games things), it’s not always clear whether a given choice should be something where the player can choose freely and have the results recorded for later, or whether it’s a case where the player’s option list should be constrained by the choices they’ve already made. When I say “it’s not clear”, I mean both “games do not always clearly communicate to the player which of those things they are doing” and “from an authorial standpoint it’s not always obvious which mode is best”. At what point have we collected enough data from the player? When do we want to start showing them the consequences of their past self-formation?
Birdland gets out of that difficulty with an adroit use of its fiction. Your choices during dream-time are obviously lower-stakes for the protagonist, so it makes sense that these might reflect what she really feels like doing. Choices during day-time are less dramatic, more nuanced, but also more likely to be controlled by what kind of personality we have going into the situation. The choices at each dream time move the dial enough to largely override previous choices, so if we feel like we’ve been too meek in the past, we can experiment with a more dramatic self-presentation the next day; we don’t have to start over and replay in order to unlock the relevant stats. That also felt fitting for a protagonist at this stage of life.
On the narrative level, the stats focus the player on the idea of developing personality rather than developing either skills or specific relationships. This isn’t a dating sim, for all it contains a romance plot (and one that frequently made me smile). And one could easily imagine this same game done with stat checks on skills like canoeing and pottery, to reflect the player’s summer camp activities. Instead, this particular choice of stats redirects our attention to the protagonist’s developing personality as a top concern.
Anyway. I thought this was beautifully made, encountered no typos or bugs or polish issues at all, and really enjoyed the story and its pacing. I still adore King of Bees in Fantasy Land, but this may have displaced it as my favorite Hennessy game to date.
One final, post-spoiler remark:
The relationship with Bell Park made me really happy. Bell’s matter-of-fact nature and confidence about facing problems is the perfect foil for the protagonist. Having played a whole other game starring Bell did flesh her out, but I think her character in Birdland stands on its own. She reminded me a lot of someone I crushed on in college, actually. So I was hoping the two of them would get together well before the story arc was obviously bending that way. And then I loved how Liz reacted to the news, too.
I don’t want to call this “heartwarming” exactly because that makes it sound like it’s going to be some sort of cheesy nonsense with an overt moral. What I liked was precisely that it wasn’t that. It is a story where (among other things) two girls fall for one another, and the challenges they face are based on who they are as individuals, and that’s it.