IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

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Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.

A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.

Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.

That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)

On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.

Continue reading “IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)”

IF Comp 2015 Roundup

ifcomp15 logoI have now reviewed all the comp games I am going to review, though some of the reviews have yet to be published. Most recent years I’ve done an end-of-comp roundup (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007) in which I talk about standout games, as well as some trends I noticed arising from the competition. This year by request I’m doing that early, even though there are still a bunch of reviews still to come out. It is little lighter on trend analysis than previously, but then one of this year’s main features was having a little of everything, and being less easily summarized.

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2015 in Interactive Fiction So Far

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It might seem a little late in the calendar year to do a half-year roundup of interactive fiction, but in fact the end of September is typically the turning point of the year: after summer is over but just before the release of the annual IF Comp games.

First, a general Don’t Miss category. This is personal and doubtless incomplete, but:

Best of. On IFDB, stalwart reviewer MathBrush has a list of 2015’s best IF releases so far. It’s a very good list, with a variety of parser and choice-based IF to look at. I might also add Caelyn Sandel’s Bloom series, Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s Neon Haze, and Vajra Chandrasekera’s Snake Game.

Other standouts for me have been Her Story (my review, followup thoughts), Lifeline, Sunset, Below, and Arcadia. Some of these I enjoyed, some I thought were interesting, and some seemed likely to have a strong impact on future work (and I’ve unpacked some of that later in this post). They’re all worth knowing about.

And this is a little outside the standard IF fold, but I enjoyed the FMV graphical adventure Contradiction a lot more than I expected to.

An undercelebrated resource in walkthroughs: David Welbourn has been building a steady supply of high-quality parser IF walkthroughs, supported by his Patreon. When I say “high-quality”, I mean that they’re divided into sections for easier use, provide maps and commentary, and frequently include discussion of how you’re meant to figure out a particular puzzle. Often David will go out of his way to document interesting side aspects of the game in question. These walkthroughs make games accessible that might have been too hard to get through or demanded too big a time commitment before, and they provide a useful resource for people writing up games later (whether in an academic context or not). It’s often fun to read through after you’ve finished a game and find out what you missed.

Here are his walkthroughs for a few games that I remember enjoying but thought were a bit overlooked by the community at large (sometimes because they were challenging): Muggle Studies, Adventurer’s Consumer Guide, Katana. Or perhaps you’ll like Firebird, which did make a bit of a splash in 1998 when it came out, but doesn’t get a lot of discussion now. And style points for providing a walkthrough of Everything We Do Is Games.

Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy Maher’s blog about the history of interactive fiction (and related games) through the 1980s is consistently compelling. He approaches the work from many angles — the history of the companies and individuals writing the software, the state of the industry, the themes and design of the games themselves. Superb. I occasionally call out links in my link roundups each month, but every post is worth reading.

Sub-Q Magazine. I am so excited about this that I go around annoyingly telling people about it at the drop of a hat — which is also why I’ve used a screenshot of Sub-Q’s current lineup at the top of this post. Sub-Q is an online magazine for interactive fiction. It pays authors, which gets into another 2015 trend that I’ll talk about in a minute, but what excites me even more is the editorial discipline and mission of the site. The first two months of Sub-Q have featured well-chosen reprints, new work from established and rising IF authors, and interactive pieces solicited from speculative fiction authors who haven’t previously worked in IF. Moreover, that work comes from all over the world and represents a variety of cultural perspectives. The currently running story is a wonderfully vivid piece of Nigerian fantasy. This doesn’t happen by accident, but only as a result of dedicated editorial work.

New works come out with cover art and blurbs. The site runs author interviews and tool coverage as well, in between stories. It is great, seriously, filling an important unfilled space in this field. As recently as my 2014 retrospective post, people were speculating about whether something like this would even be possible. I will be really really sad if it winds up having to shut down due to lack of subscription. If I were an eccentric IF-loving billionaire, one of my first moves would be to make sure Sub-Q was fully funded.

After the fold, more thoughts on specific trends and developments.

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Fast-Paced Parser Games

Most parser games tend to keep a pretty stately pace, allowing the player to move around and explore, and only ratcheting the plot forward in response to player actions. There are exceptions, though: a handful of pieces describe a world already and continuously in motion, or cut rapidly from one scene to another with just a few moves in each — presenting an experience paced more like a film than like Adventure.

Quite a few of these are by J. Robinson Wheeler, which is unsurprising given that that style is a bit of a specialty of his (perhaps reflecting the fact that he’s also a filmmaker and takes a cinematic approach to his IF stories).

moonbaseMoonbase Indigo, J. Robinson Wheeler. Inspired by Moore-era Bond, with a lot of the tropes you might expect in that context.

Centipede, J. Robinson Wheeler. A Starship-Troopers-esque reinterpretation of the classic arcade game.

The Tale of the Kissing Bandit, J. Robinson Wheeler. Playful, lightly romantic.

Being Andrew Plotkin, J. Robinson Wheeler. If Being John Malkovich where about zarf, instead. There are a fair number of community and classic IF in-jokes in this one, but also some entertaining riffs on different narrative styles.

Everybody Dies, Jim Munroe. Touches of both realism and mysticism, together with some excellent illustration.

Guilded Youth, Jim Munroe. Told through a series of vignettes that take place both on and off-line.

Dial C for Cupcakes, Ryan Veeder. There are some puzzles in this one, but also a fair amount of scene progression. As is typical for Veeder’s games, the puzzles are not tremendously hard.

Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies, Øyvind Thorsby. The conceit of this game is that you’re meant to play once and never undo. If you commit to an action, you’re stuck with it.

Andromeda Dreaming, Joey Jones. Most of the games set in Marco Innocenti’s shared Andromeda world are fairly puzzle-based, but this one focuses more on an unfolding story.

If this sort of thing interests you, see also: IFDB poll for Autonomic Narration (where you can also add your own suggestions).

Games about Community: Ohmygod Are You Alright? (Anna Anthropy), Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis), Tusks (Mitch Alexander)

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 5.02.00 PMOhmygod Are You Alright? is a flash-augmented Twine piece by Anna Anthropy about the experience of being hit by a car and the recovery process afterward. The details of physical pain and the dehumanization of the hospital are unpleasant enough, though I suppose they could have been even worse.

But the game’s most lasting and unresolved pain pertains to how Anna feels about her community: lonely, cut off from support, no longer enjoying the energy and communal celebration of her earlier time with Twine. She touches on this in the ruleset for A Wish for Something Better, but Ohmygod goes into it more deeply. She mentions feeling surprised by the forlorn hope that being hit by a car will make people pay attention again. There’s wistfulness, too, about having been at the forefront of a movement that now contains a lot of other practitioners.

If games are not great at NPCs and individual relationships, they’re often downright terrible on communal responsibility and community formation, but Ohmygod made me think about two other games I’ve played recently that touch on the function of community in our lives.

Continue reading “Games about Community: Ohmygod Are You Alright? (Anna Anthropy), Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis), Tusks (Mitch Alexander)”

Games of Co-Authorship

Someone recently asked me about games in which the player is involved in the story as a co-author rather than as a protagonist, and this is the list I came up with (plus a few others that I thought of after answering the initial request):


Witch’s Yarn — a graphical point-and-click rather than text-based, but you’re picking which props/characters you want to bring on stage next. Eons ago I did a review of it here. I think there are interesting procedural narrative things they could have done with this premise, but mostly in practice it came out as a series of puzzles instead. (Still interesting and unusual, though.)

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 6.50.26 PM18 Cadence — players rearrange objects and narrative elements to construct their own stories. I talk about it more here.

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