The Yellow Bowl (Judy Malloy) and Hypertexts of Juxtaposition

The Yellow Bowl is a piece of 1990s hypertext recently rebuilt for the web. Its paradigm of several narrative tracks that we can pursue simultaneously sets it apart from most (but not all) narrative IF.

A screenshot from the reimplementation of The Yellow Bowl by Judy Malloy.
Using the arrow at the top center, the reader may advance the central narrative; the many colored arrows, left and right, advance the adjacent narratives in different ways. The reader has information about the relative primacy of the pieces we’re reading, but little about their content or theme.

Judy Malloy’s The Yellow Bowl is a very early hypertext, originally written in BASIC in 1992, and then a few years ago converted to be accessible on the modern web. In her introduction to the new version, she writes

Welcome to the transmediation — from BASIC to JavaScript in an HTML/CSS environment — of The Yellow Bowl. Originally containing approximately 800 lexias, The Yellow Bowl was first presented at “Hypertext, Hypermedia: Defining a Fictional Form”, a 1992 MLA panel, chaired by Terry Harpold, where I said:

“In my narrabase, The Yellow Bowl, the contrast between the narrator’s ‘true’ memories and the ways she distorts them to shape the story places the reader on the uneasy ground between the narrator and the narrative.”

The piece features three narratives: a main storyline about the protagonist Grace, filling the center of the screen, and then two adjacent narratives, which are speculative fiction/fantasy stories that she is making up about two different women who are trying to escape oppressive environments. All three narratives contain a fair amount of domestic detail, of the preparation of meals and the mundane texture of daily life. In the end, the side narratives will end with the two fictional characters meeting.

The reader may advance any of these three narratives at any time, changing which lexia sit next to which; there’s some basic text animation applied to the left and right text streams, so that they flow into place rather than just appearing. There are also a few clips of sound, passages from the text read aloud.

All of these elements feel very much of 1992 — not because it is unfathomable to have animated text effects now, and indeed inkle have been very eloquent about the value of this kind of technique — but because the implementation emphasizes the computer-nature of the text as though that were a novelty, while doing nothing to ease the human process of reading it. The letters dance up the screen, making you lose your place if you try to read before they have finally settled.

Reading this text, I immediately feel a kind of discomfort I’ve come to recognize. When text is presented to me this densely on a page, and there are this many affordances for things to do, it makes me anxious that I will not be able to read it thoroughly.

Even a printed book can have this effect on me, if there are too many sidebars, and especially the parallel texts run together longer than a page or two. S. caused a bit of it, until I came up with a strategy. Curiously, I usually don’t have this same issue with densely-footnoted books, because the footnote enumerations do suggest a clear reading strategy and promise me a way back into the main text when I am done.

In considering ways to read this work, I found myself considering other juxtaposed or parallel-track pieces I might have encountered before.

Continue reading “The Yellow Bowl (Judy Malloy) and Hypertexts of Juxtaposition”

Interactive Audio Panel (Talk Recordings)

Earlier in the summer (June 8!) the London IF Meetup had a session on interactive audio storytelling. We aren’t usually able to do this, but in this case thanks to volunteer Julian Weaver we did get audio from these presentations, and Nico was kind enough also to share his slides. So for those who missed it, here are the materials:

Jeferson Valadares (Doppio) speaks about his studio’s project The Vortex ( https://doppio.games/the-vortex ), a game designed to be played by voice and with writing by Greg Buchanan.

Nico Czaja (xm:lab) – Augmented reality, but for your ears: Location based interactive audio stories. Working with cultural institutions, xm:lab brought together Twine, audio files and GPS coordinates to match physical places with reactive stories: A concentration camp memorial, an open air museum, a stretch of primeval forest and Maidan square in Kiev. All these are intended to be experienced phone in pocket and headphones on; Player choice is expressed solely by walking, affordances and story are solely communicated via audio. Nico speaks about the potential and pitfalls discovered in building these projects.

Nicky Birch (BBC R&D, Rosina Sound) and Henry Cooke (BBC R&D) demonstrate and discuss their recent work for smart speakers (The Unfortunates, The Inspection Chamber and Hidden Cities). They share their insights about what works with existing technology, what the market responds to, and where future possibilities might lie.

And as an added bonus resource — this isn’t from the London IF Meetup, but David Kuelz spoke at NarraScope on Designing Games That Listen, and his talk is recorded and available here.

Lily’s Garden (Tactile Games)

Lily’s Garden begins with the protagonist inheriting a house from an elderly relative. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say “a stately home with attached grounds.”

Not long ago I asked on Twitter whether there was content people wanted to see more or less of on this blog, and one respondent said he missed the reviews of casual games with a narrative bent. (Miss Management remains my gold standard in this field, but there were others that I also really enjoyed.)

I answered that I don’t play as many of those as I used to: partly because my schedule has gotten more demanding, and partly because the time management and casual simulation games went through a phase where they just weren’t that great any more.

However, that conversation reminded me that there was a casual game I’d been meaning to try out — a mobile game called Lily’s Garden that received a warm write-up a while back from Carly Kocurek. And I’d heard a little from narrative designer Stella Sacco about what she was doing with the content, and was intrigued by the promise of a nuanced, grown-up storyline.

Continue reading “Lily’s Garden (Tactile Games)”

Mailbag: Recommendation requests

I’ve glued together two rather different requests for recommendations here, one about queer representation in IF and the other about classic parser-style work from recent years.

I’m okay with doing this occasionally, but for what it’s worth, IFDB is better than you might think at letting you answer this kind of question for yourself. You can set up polls or search people’s pre-existing curated lists, or use IFDB’s tagging system. I’ve recommended a few related search approaches here as well.

Do you have personally favorite narrative-gaming works among those in which the player character is identifiably queer? (Either incidentally or as part of The Point of the work.)  I imagine you get secondary-research type questions like this with some frequency, but if you have any brief thoughts I would be grateful for thoughts for things in that (very broad) category to especially check out.

These are differently fit for different contexts, but my personal favorite interactive stories of queer protagonists would probably be these:

Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. Charming lesbian goes to summer camp story. Several of BPH’s games are about queer teenagers (see also Known Unknowns, which gets slightly more seriously into how-this-relationship-can-go-wrong territory, with characters who aren’t out yet or haven’t yet figured out their own sexuality).

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine. Kind of the other end of the spectrum as far as accessibility. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one for kids, and it might need unpacking of its trans themes even for some adult audiences. A lot of Porpentine’s other works would qualify here.

SPY INTRIGUE by furkle. This is definitely not for kids either.

But in picking my favorites here, I have a very large set of works to choose from, since queer-protagonist interactive fiction is pretty abundant.

Several pieces explicitly look at some aspect of queer experience as the main point of the story. Among the ones I’ve found most striking are Coming Out Story by Nicky Case; Bloom and Cis Gaze by Caelyn Sandel; and Tentacles Growing Everywhere by Dietrich Squinkifer. I’m also interested in, but haven’t yet had time to play, A Bathroom Myth by Anya Johanna DeNiro.

There are also several brands and serieses that explicitly permit the player to self-define a character’s gender expression or sexual attraction. Here I’d include Fallen London and all the games in its universe including Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, as well as the Choice of Games brand. Fallen London and many of the CoG games allow non-binary gender protagonists as well as same-gender relationships, and in some cases allow the protagonist to negotiate poly relationships. The Failbetter blog includes a discussion by Hannah Flynn of how they approached gender in their work.

There are other games in which the protagonist is of fixed gender but can opt into relationships with other characters of various genders in the course of play, without explicitly making that part of protagonist identity. 80 Days includes at least one same-sex romance encounter I know of, and there may be more I didn’t see.

An IFDB search for the tag “queer” will turn up further options. Meanwhile, Queerly Represent Me offers some resources on this general topic and on sensitivity reads.


I’m a fan of old-style text adventures. Is anything like those still being produced?

Yes indeed. It’s not entirely clear what time frame we should consider for “still” here, but I’ll arbitrarily band to the past five or six years, with a couple suggestions that go further back if they might have gone overlooked at the time. And as for “old-style,” I’m pairing with some Infocom games but also some canonical early hobbyist IF.

The Enchanter series in general: for comedy-fantasy, try Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson, 2015) or Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne, 2018). A little further afield from Enchanter but still in the general vein of light-hearted puzzle game with fantasy approach to reality, consider Thaumistry (Bob Bates, 2017). The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson, 2017) is also highly acclaimed, though I personally haven’t played it.

Zork III and Spellbreaker for their challenging set-piece puzzles: Try Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer, 2015). It allows you to get the world model into surprising states, and the solutions often left me with a pleasing sense of having really gotten away with something. And if you really want parser puzzles with a minimum of fiction, try Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey, 2018) as well as pretty much the entire oeuvre of Arthur DiBianca, who excels at this style.

Deadline: Make It Good is my favorite answer to Deadline, but that itself is now a decade old. More recently, if you were interested in comparing people’s stories and trying to extract a consistent meaning, you might like Color the Truth (mathbrush, 2016).

Infidel: try Arthur DiBianca’s archaeology puzzler Temple of Shorgil (2018). Or, if you want something a bit more Indiana Jones, there’s Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze, 2013).

Plundered Hearts: If you liked it for its romance theme, I have to reach back a few years to the work of Kathleen Fischer. But if you liked Plundered Hearts for its self-conscious pulpy use genre, its forward-moving plot, and the opportunities to cause wild reactions in the various NPCs you encounter, I recommend the heist game Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J.J. Guest, 2018), or the alien-invasion adventure Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell, 2015).

Planetfall: I don’t have any recommendations that will give you a Floyd replacement, precisely, but in the “abandoned SF station with puzzles to solve” zone, here’s Richard Otter’s Word of the Day (2017) or Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll (2015).

Hollywood Hijinx: this is one I didn’t get all the way through myself, but Diddlebucker! (J. Michael, 2018) very explicitly casts itself as an Infocom nostalgia piece, and the reviewers appear to have found it a solid puzzle game.

Suspended: Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 (Victor Gijsbers, 2018). Well, maybe. I haven’t actually played Suspended. But both of these games involve control of a distant robot that provides your senses.

Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It: Andrew Schultz‘s games do wordplay surrealism in pretty much every configuration you can imagine.

Trinity: A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey, 2017), a math-themed, historically-informed puzzle-fest. It has a happier meta-arc than Trinity, but the puzzles are generally excellent.

Frenetic Five series: The Owl Consults series consists of two games by different authors, but both involving teams of superheroes whose skills can variously be activated to get through the game.

So Far: Sub Rosa (Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, 2015) presents an excellent selection of puzzles set in an environment that doesn’t physically resemble our own very much at all.

Tapestry: Map (Ade McT, 2015) is my favorite recent-ish parser puzzle game that reflects on key turning points in the protagonist’s life, and what it would mean if they’d gone differently.

Anchorhead: the obvious recommendation here has to be the multi-author tribute game Cragne Manor (everyone under the sun, 2018).

The Act of Misdirection: Three Card Trick (Chandler Groover, 2016).

Bonus suggestions: I didn’t get nearly all the way through Worldsmith (Ade McTavish, 2016), but it’s huge. If you’re looking for something epic and ambitious, maybe that’s worth a try. Also, at 2014, Hunger Daemon falls just outside the category but it’s solid, funny stuff.

If you search for tag:parser published:2015-, you can find IFDB’s list of titles that might also fall into this category.

Finally, I’d also say that there is a whole genre of parser games written in the past five years or so that retain a lot of the parser’s advantages but work on making the experience more accessible to new users. Since they’re not really “old-style”, I haven’t listed them here, but I discuss the phenomenon in this Rock Paper Shotgun column.

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly (Palimrya)

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly is a medium-short piece about lovers trying to survive outside a society that has become untenably hostile to them. For starters, our protagonists are trans, and any kind of hormonal therapy has been aggressively outlawed. The viewpoint character also has some significant body modifications (such as a powered arm that constantly needs to be topped up on fuel). Her lover is Hispanic, and neither of those things is seen as acceptable, either.

It is not an entirely easy work to start. The language is poetic, the descriptions often metaphorical. At the same time, the setting is just science-fictional enough to contain literal possibilities that could only possibly be metaphors in our world.

So in the early screens it isn’t always obvious whether a reference to chitin means that something merely looks like chitin or whether you’re talking about someone who is actually part insect, or has a bioengineered exoskeleton of some kind, or…

And, in any case, the style of the writing is often lush to the point of overripeness, an effect that is certainly intentional, but that tends to arouse my suspicion as a reader. When writing is so obviously for effect, I often worry that it is going to be only for effect, with less attention to truth and thoughtfulness. In such situations, I tend to read with my empathy in my back pocket, unwilling to commit emotionally yet when I am not sure that commitment has been earned.

But I found that, if I read slowly and didn’t get too impatient to click the next link, it took only a few minutes to get my bearings with this. I could perceive more emotional nuances, and the pace of the work began to come clear. Major narrative passages tend to be more prosaic, but descriptions of important things and people are frequently poems.


At no point does the text become anything you might accuse of restraint, and there are points where the cadence of a line or the choice of a word felt off to me, but this is a matter as much of taste as of substance.

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly takes place in a dystopic, near-future America in which the camps have become even more brutal, the fascism more aggressive and unchecked. For entertainment, middle school students fly Apple- and Google-branded drones around the countryside, hoping to catch footage of a death in progress.

But it’s not all about the more terrifying aspects of the right in America. Several of the most dry and cutting passages are those that describe “your scene” and its reaction to you and your girlfriend, just before they make sure you have nowhere in town to live:

This is not, not at all, a story that excuses abuse, or that argues it shouldn’t receive some kind of communal response. Your girlfriend has had to do a lot of very serious work on herself, work that she has chosen to undertake and that she’s shown struggling through, in the hope of becoming someone better afterward, and some scars of that process are still evident in your interactions when it’s done. Her patience, so different from her past manner, remains a thing to be pointed out and celebrated.

The piece is also, in title and in function, a call to action. There’s a passage on the acknowledgements page about what you can do, now, to help support and protect immigrants.

It may be over-reading what the author intended, but I perceived a parallel between the two stories, the personal story of the abusive girlfriend who becomes a better person and learns to live her beliefs, and the public story, which extends from the fiction into reality, of a country that mistreats the most vulnerable people in its own borders.

The personal story suggests, by analogy, a kind of hope for the latter, though only with hard work and a collective willingness to own responsibility for who we are.

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9

cambridgeIntroToNarrative

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

Last month I looked at the first six chapters; now I’m returning to it. As before, I generally found myself reading this overview with an eye to how interactive media tend to compare, since Abbott only examines hypertext to a limited degree, and other interactive narrative very little at all.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9”