Cannonfire Concerto (Steam, IFDB) is a Choice of Games piece from Caleb Wilson (Lime Ergot, Starry Seeksorrow, Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow). Caleb is a long-time writer of IF with a distinctive style: strong, personality-rich prose; a good eye for setting detail; a taste for writing about decadent societies now at the verge of ruin; some unusual mechanical and quirky experiments, like Lime Ergot‘s telescopic use of EXAMINE to reveal more and more content. (If you haven’t played Lime Ergot, you really should: it will take you five minutes and it’s become one of the canonical parser-IF pieces of the last few years.) Besides all this, Caleb’s work often has a very definite narrative voice.
I mention all this because those strengths are not the same ones I tend to associate with the Choice of Games brand, where I tend to expect a dynamic protagonist very much defined by the player; stats that work in a very consistent CoG way; lots of replayability; and a tendency in most works towards a brightly-colored, major key kind of storytelling.
So it might seem that these two influences might work strangely together, but in fact they compliment each other extremely well. Cannonfire Concerto is one of the funnier and more deftly written CoG pieces I’ve seen. The protagonist customization still does exist — you can pick your gender and what sorts of characters you’re interested in romancing, give yourself a personal history, etc — but all of the options for your past are within a particular range, and the gentle snark of the narrative voice is part of what enlivens the narration.
Caleb has taken the mandatory CoG opening, consisting of a high stakes medias res choice to hook the player followed by a bunch of character creation choices, and managed it as smoothly as I think I’ve ever seen: you begin in the middle of running away from pursuers, and choose what to do next; each choice, Memento-style, actually shows you a little more of what led up to this point.
Meanwhile, the context of a CoG game gives enough structure and scope for a bigger story than most of Caleb’s earlier IF.
Then, the premise. Cannonfire Concerto takes place in an alternate Europe (Meropa) threatened by a conquering general called Bonaventure. You are a Genius performer (and genius is or appears to be a form of magic, though this is a matter of debate) who also becomes entangled in politics and spying. As in Hollywood Visionary, you get a fair amount of choice around what kind of a creator you want to be; and because your music is a major way you connect with other people and groups, that affects which audiences you are best able to reach. I went for a rapid-fire, mathematical sort of Genius, which impressed intellectuals but meant I was terrible at playing pagan tunes by the campfire. It’s important to know your limits.
In practice, this means wearing wigs and dressing up in fancy clothes, giving performances and facing off with your musical rivals, and practicing new pieces for your instrument (I chose a zither of unique design): good costume-drama, adventure narrative stuff.
So far I’ve only had a chance to play once, as someone more concerned about my musical career than about trying to change the face of Meropa (though I probably did a bit anyway). Of the two people I romanced in the course of the game, I only managed to stay with one of them permanently, though the game did give me a bittersweet last encounter with the other, late in my life. And it feels like there’s quite a lot of variation in the outcome — I’ll have to give it another try later.
At any rate, I definitely recommend it. Games released right at the end of a year sometimes get missed for XYZZYs, but I think this might be a plausible contender for a Best Writing nomination.
Disclosures: I have a contract for work of my own with Choice of Games, but discovered and played this piece independently. I played a copy of the game that I bought with my own money.