Spring Thing 2017: A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye

flycoverThere are two A Fly on the Wall games in Spring Thing: this is the one in the Back Garden, written by Nigel Jayne, and apparently riffing on an original from ECTOCOMP 2014. So you might say there are also two A Fly on the Wall games by Nigel Jayne, this current one and the old version from 2014. Except, also, Nigel Jayne submitted two versions of the 2017 A Fly on the Wall, one in Squiffy and one in Glulx. Thus in total, A Fly on the Wall could refer to

  • A Fly on the Wall, Nigel Jayne, ECTOCOMP 2014, Inform/Z-Machine
  • A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye, Nigel Jayne, Spring Thing Back Garden 2017, Inform/Glulx
  • A Fly on the Wall, or An Appositional Eye, Nigel Jayne, Spring Thing Back Garden 2017, Squiffy
  • A Fly on the Wall, Peregrine Wade, Spring Thing Main Festival, 2017, ink

I played the Glulx version, which uses conventional parser commands plus some special extras, and includes an assortment of cool sound effects.

The premise of all the Nigel Jayne flies-on-a-wall is that you are at a party, but are watching from a centralized security center with five monitors. At any given moment, you can watch any one monitor, but the story progresses unseen in the other monitors. This means a lot of switching your attention when a character moves out of one room and into another; or you can try watching a single room continuously throughout the story, though you’ll get a more fragmented sense of narrative.

If you successfully manage to follow a particular character set through the course of the evening, this unlocks a hypothesis about a death that occurs towards the end of the party. Thus, the gameplay is mostly about figuring out which screen to watch next in order to pursue your viewing strategy. Your protagonist can then offer a summary description of what she thinks happened. So your detection is at a sort of second remove; you’re not following up on your own ideas about what happened, but you are collecting data so that you can pass that data on to her.

I found that I was able to figure out 2/3 of the “successful” viewing sequences by myself, and then resorted to checking out the Inform source code to find the last one. It turned out that I was missing “greed,” though I thought I’d already tried to follow the relevant character there; apparently I’d missed a step and not realized it, somehow.

As for the story itself, it’s quite focused on logistics and grand gestures, which are the sorts of things a security camera is designed to capture. There’s an option to experience the protagonist’s interpretation of what’s happening, and that’s very useful, because often the motivation for on-screen action was less obvious to me than perhaps it was supposed to be.

Ultimately — I’d be curious to see more examples of the interactive story method of asking the player to decide what to watch in a simultaneous drama. It’s an approach reminiscent of a lot of immersive theatre (see Sleep No More, where the audience members follow actors from room to room or just wander off to explore the set).

But here, it’s also rather distancing, guaranteeing that the protagonist is separated from all the characters and has few immediate stakes in any of the action. In addition, the thing the player has to figure out — where did this character go next, so I can keep watching him/her? — is not the same thing the protagonist has to figure out, namely the motives underpinning those movements.

So at least for me, fitting together possible subplots within the mystery became a jigsaw puzzle rather than the substance of a compelling narrative experience. I don’t want to sound too negative — I did enjoy the game — but I think there is more possibility yet to be explored in this area.

Note also: we’re nearly at the end of Spring Thing — judging closes May 5. So if you want to participate as a judge, you have just a little longer in which to get involved.

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