Bee is a choice-based story I wrote some years ago about being a homeschooled student trying (but failing) to win the national spelling bee.
Initially released for Varytale in 2012, Bee went off-line for a time when the platform shut down. Varytale’s programmer, Ian Millington, then partially re-created Bee for Dendry, a non-commercial platform with similar technical features. He wasn’t able to complete the project, and for some years Bee was only available to play in an incomplete form.
Recently, Autumn Chen kindly helped complete and update Bee for Dendry: adding missing status views, making the endings functional, and helping with testing and balancing. The finished version is available on itch – and for thoroughness, I’ve also uploaded a copy to the IF Archive.
Many thanks to her: I would not have had the bandwidth to do this on my own.
In the completion process, we also made a few updates to the text itself. These were mainly to address issues in the original game that could make some play-throughs overly repetitive, or make certain endings more difficult to reach. Where that process meant I needed a little extra material, I also wrote a small amount of additional text, and restructured a few storylets. (I’ve got another post lined up about the rebalancing, for people who really like storylet design posts, but it’s a bit spoilery, so it made sense to do it separately.)
A word about content
Bee depicts a child’s perspective on cultural issues around religion and politics in the US, topics that have become even more fraught in the decade since I wrote it. I thought a bit about what it meant to re-release it now; if you’re curious about that, read on.
The story draws most of its real-world inspiration from my own experiences and observations in the late 1980s through the early 2000s, in which period I was homeschooled myself, and had homeschooled friends; taught homeschooled children via online classes; and, in one case, worked with a small homeschooling co-op as an in-home tutor.
So it was very much a case of writing what I knew, but without trying to make the result documentary or expository. Often, I pull in different experiences and don’t always try to contextualise how those experiences relate to one another.
For instance, Bee features an Episcopalian parish: the church calendar and the content of the liturgy draws on those traditions. But there are characters of a much more evangelical background than the Episcopal church usually attracts. The story pulls in examples of many other things I encountered as a child or young adult – from other churches, from homeschooling groups, from periodicals and websites and political action groups. In some cases, it was only many years later that I had enough context to recognise the ideology or doctrine that had prompted an adult to say a particular thing to me. For the most part, Bee doesn’t explain either.
The result is off-putting to some people. If you read the story as a satirical attack, then it almost certainly reads as an unfair satirical attack, because not everything that happens in the story is due to the same causes or associated with the same ideologies. Over the years, I’ve heard from a few readers who felt I wasn’t giving their denomination or pedagogical practices a fair representation, or that I was conflating their group with someone else very politically or doctrinally different from themselves.
It’s conceivable that Bee simply does not have a great deal to offer homeschooling proponents: it’s not meant as an attack per se, but it’s also not really trying to be an actionable critique. If writing about homeschooling for that audience, I think the piece would need to be a different one, based on different stories.
Meanwhile, readers less familiar with Christian homeschooling seem to have read Bee as largely sympathetic to its characters, even where it doesn’t defend their ideologies. To the extent I had an audience in mind when writing, it was this second group.
I’ve also occasionally heard from a third set of people – readers who were leaving or had left a situation like the one in Bee, and who’d found it useful in thinking about that process. Perhaps it’s for them most of all, though I didn’t know it at the time.
In practice, my own view on homeschooling is very much “it’s complicated,” and I find fiction – especially interactive fiction – the medium in which I can best articulate complexity. Put fragments next to one another. Try to make the fragments true (if also subjective and bound to a particular viewpoint character). Leave the assembly at least partly up to the reader. Yes, there’s a procedural rhetoric; yes, some interpretations are more supported than others. But in my experience it still has room to be more flexible, more responsive, more open to intentional ambiguities or authorial uncertainty than a linear essay could be.
The latest release does two things to try to support that intent. One is structural: I have reduced randomness a bit, improved various aspects of balance, and aimed to make it easier for a player to experience most or all of the text, given a few play-throughs.
The other was to add a few small bits of text. Most of these fill in places where some storylet was needed for balance reasons, but a small handful extend characters where I felt I hadn’t done quite enough to flesh out their motives.
Ultimately: it’s not something I would write from scratch now; it’s also not necessarily a project that has something to say to all audiences. But I’ve tried to make it what I intended in 2012. To the extent that it was a story about seeing people and groups in less simple terms, I think that’s still a thing I want to say in 2022.