Spring Thing 2019

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Spring Thing 2019 is now open. The second-biggest regular competition of the interactive fiction calendar, this year it has 20ish games including both choice-based and parser-based work, some experimental and some more classic in style. I haven’t had time to play nearly all of them, but here are a few I’ve had a chance to look at so far:

ballroom_cover.jpgLiza Daly has for several years been working with her own custom Windrift system, which produces lovely and typographically pleasing browser stories like Stone Harbor and Harmonia.

The Ballroom is a piece in this system where you can tweak certain details of the story in order to mutate it towards being a different story entirely. What starts as a disappointing anecdote in the life of an impoverished Regency miss can turn in other, rather startling directions as you alter your protagonist’s clothing and social choices, and the rest of the scene changes in consequence. Initially that stays within the Austenesque world, but it soon starts genre-hopping.

There is a logic of world features that persist through significant changes of genre and tone, that reminded me in some ways of Dual Transform or Invisible Parties. And the way you have access to the whole temporal sequence at once and can change the state of things earlier or later in the narrative as you choose, felt a bit Midnight. Swordfight. (though it’s definitely smaller than that work).

Meanwhile the player’s role in the game is not exactly protagonist or co-author — you don’t have enough control to really be responsible for the authorship of the story, but you’re also not straightforwardly a single person in the narrative, either.

darkness_schomay.jpgJeff Schomay’s Darkness is another experiment in a custom system, the ELM narrative engine. ELM is also link-based, and presents as a bit Twine-like, but there’s underlying state so that going back to old links and clicking them again can cause new effects later in the story.

It’s a pleasing idea, but I struggled with the execution, because I kept needing to scroll up more and more to find old links I wanted to re-click. There’s a sort of link inventory bar at the top of the page, but it only appears if you scroll up at least a bit; where it would perhaps be more ergonomic to have that bar near the bottom of the page and persistent. You might lose the sense of reviewing earlier text, but I feel like requiring the player to constantly scroll back up to interact is fighting the natural affordances of a web page. (All this talk about the system and nothing about the story, but this particular hook, “you are a person with no memory, in a location with no features,” is one that has long since lost its appeal for me, because it’s so common in interactive fiction and gives the reader so little to work with.)

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Porter Cave Adventure offers a Zork parody/pastiche with a few relatively straightforward puzzles. Every time you encounter a set-piece, though, there’s some quote from game theory writing to explain or illuminate what you’re up against. For the most part, I found this reasonably well implemented, though there were a couple of places where I needed to resort to the walkthrough in order to guess what verb to use or how to interact.

I imagine most players would either lack enough context to make sense of it (it really assumes you’re familiar already with Zork and with the conventions of IF gameplay, and probably with a bit of theoretical framework as well) or else find it a bit on the obvious side. According to the authorial comment, this was a final project in a game history course, and I think it does make the most sense as a piece created by a student to demonstrate back to the teacher that they’d been able to contextualize the readings from their course.

Writing Program Five riffs on the early days of computing, and the affordances of very old operating systems. It has more going on than initially meets the eye, and I was able to find some of it, only to promptly get stuck.

However, a tip from the part I succeeded in playing: if you find yourself just clicking the links forward looking for something to do, cut that out and pay more attention to the text of what’s there.

celia_swift.jpgThe Empty Chamber: A Celia Swift Mystery is a parser-based locked-room mystery, where you’re exploring just the contents of the room where the victim died. I haven’t completely solved this one either, but the section I’ve been through so far feels pleasingly solid in its implementation, with both a physical environment and a conversational space to explore, as well as additional characters to bring in. The mystery-in-period-British-setting aspects reminded me a bit of Christopher Huang’s parser-based mysteries.

When you reach a point where you think you understand what’s happened, you can type DEDUCE to answer some questions about the murderer, time of death, location of death, and so on. If your first crack at this is unsuccessful, the game will offer you the option of hearing how many of your guesses were correct, for replay purposes.

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