Life in a Northern Town (People + Places, Spring Thing 2018)

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 9.04.33 AM.png

From Spring Thing 2018, Life in a Northern Town is what sometimes gets called dynamic fiction as a subset of interactive fiction: a piece in which, for most characters, you’re never making a single choice that changes an outcome or modifies the shape of a narrative. (Brianna’s chapter, in inklewriter, is an exception: she has actual agency over who she chooses to engage with. But the vast, vast majority of this story is about people making dangerous decisions while the player has no opportunity to intervene or prevent them from doing so.)

For most of the elements, a majority of the clicks are click-to-continue options, and some of the sub-stories in the piece are presented in formats such as groups of images on Instagram, where branching would be very hard to arrange. Other elements are told in Twine or on WordPress, eight different people’s perspectives on the same story — though it’s not really trying for a mimetic effect here. It’s not ARG-ishly pretending to actually be the blogs of all these people. Here and there, images are included, especially on the Instagram segments, but elsewhere it’s almost all text, including the largest chunk of the story which is presented in unstyled Twine.

Still, it’s not the same story it would have been if it had been written into a book. The work of reading it is part of the point, for one thing. This is a story about labor, and the labor is recaptured in the way of reading.

For another, the dynamic-fiction presentation fractures the temporal sequence of scenes, especially in the Twine segments. Often there will be a short scene of dialogue between characters, and then clicking through a link will reveal another beat in the same conversation, another interaction, which might be chronologically before or after the first. It doesn’t really matter how they’re joined up, temporally. I never found this to be confusing. Rather, it gave me a sense that I was getting the overall impression of the interaction and then a couple of other key moments from that interaction, in the same way I might when going over a memory in my head. A handful of times the revealed secondary beat actually overturns the sense of the initial interaction.

So I can see reasons for the way it’s presented, but this is a long piece of work — took me some hours to read, and I’m a pretty fast reader — and by the end I would really have appreciated a more comfortable, less laborious reading experience. Other markers are missing, too: there aren’t chapter breaks, so sometimes the story ratchets forward to a new scene or location without an explicit division. There’s no progress indicator, either, which I really miss when I’ve got a multi-hour work on my hands.

Something like this stands or falls on the quality of its writing. In my initial encounter with the first of its linked stories, “Dangerous Work”, I was a little discouraged by the styling and structure — of course it’s not always the case, but standard, unformatted blue-and-white-on-black Twine sometimes goes with low-effort authoring. But I found myself continuing to read screen after screen, connecting with the luckless protagonist and her precarious life in and around Minneapolis.

Continue reading

Spy EYE (The Marino Family, Spring Thing 2018)

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 1.06.05 PM.pngFrom Spring Thing 2018, Spy EYE is a continuation of the Mrs. Wobbles series (Mysterious Floor; Parrot the Pirate; Switcheroo). Like the earlier pieces in the series, it’s an Undum work that tells a part-fantasy, part-reality story about children in foster care. (I also highly recommend Lucian Smith’s guest post about Switcheroo.)

In this case, the protagonists are a Latinx brother and sister whose parents are missing, and the story revolves around going to look for them and rescue them.The story lets you play as either Juan (the older brother) or Ichel (the younger sister), and they have different takes on whether to expect their parents back any time soon. That touch reminded me of a few other stories where the choice of viewpoint character is meant to shed some light on a family situation — Stephen Granade’s Common Ground, most notably.

Continue reading

IF Comp 2017, Belatedly

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 2.35.53 PMIF Comp is on, and you have another month or so to play and rate the games. This year’s selection of games is properly enormous — a record-breaking 79 entries. (The ceiling used to be in the region of 50, so this is a big jump.) That collection includes a rich selection of parser and choice-based games in many different styles; reappearances by some established authors alongside plenty of new names;  and three translations of Chinese interactive fiction, which I think may be a first for the Comp. I see lots of fantasy, horror, and SF as well as slice-of-life; not as much mystery as there are in some years.

If you want a look, here are some resources for you:

The Short Game podcast provides an introduction to the competition, including explaining what the competition is for people who aren’t familiar with it at all.

This post breaks down the games by genre and play style, while this subforum at the intfiction forum has discussion threads for many of the individual games.

Some blogs running reviews wind up on Planet-IF. This thread also allows people to link to their own reviews.

This year, the Comp allows judges not only to leave ratings but to add a few lines of feedback to the author. That’s a nice option if you have something private to say or don’t want to write a full review — authors very much value getting responses to their work — though please remember to be polite and constructive, and mind the guidelines for judges.

 

Spring Thing 2017: Balefires Burning

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 3.58.33 PM.png

Balefires Burning is a Twine story about a girl nearing the age of initiation in a village that practices witchcraft. She is in love with a young man who, though not a blood relative, is off-limits for other reasons of clan tradition. The text (as shown) is formatted like poetry, which initially felt a bit self-important, especially when I encountered dialogue arranged that way. This put me off the first time I tried the piece.

On a second try, I got used to the format as I read, and came to see it as representing the narrator’s ritual-inflected perspective on the world, where everything that happens is keyed into traditional practices and calendars. Meanwhile, the writing also accomplishes quite a bit else with its space — communicating the protagonist’s problem, introducing half a dozen or so additional characters, getting us familiar with the setting, suggesting the natural beauty of this world.

The piece feels very influenced by young adult genre fiction (and I notice the game is tagged as “teen fiction”). I found myself wishing for just a bit more edge to the fantasy in a couple of respects.

Continue reading

Spring Thing 2017: Not Quite a Sunset

notquitecoverNot Quite a Sunset describes itself as a hypertext opera, a research project into allowing the player to influence how the music changes and evolves, together with the plot of a story. I had a weird time with it, and I’ll describe what that experience was, but I’m not sure the results deserve to be called an actual review.

I am not an expert in music, and post-Wagner opera I would identify as particularly a weak point of mine: I’ve seen Akhnaten in person, heard a little other Glass here and there, and that’s about it. I don’t feel equipped to comment on the form of the opera, nor about how interactivity might affect that form.

What I can say, in my musically uninformed way, is that the music in this game had a primacy that soundtracks usually do not. Individual instruments stand out. There is an articulate quality to the tune. The game’s blurb describes it as “a story with a soundtrack,” but what I experienced from it was very much not that; soundtracks fade to the back, supporting. What I experienced was a musical piece sufficiently interesting that I had a hard time concentrating simultaneously on the longish blocks of science fiction that accompany the opening.

Continue reading