Pry (Tender Claws)

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PRY is an iOS story that combines video segments and text to explore the inner and outer worlds of a veteran who is still struggling to process his experiences in the war, who is suffering from vision impairment thanks to wounds sustained there, and who is now trying to hold down a job in demolitions.

The interaction consists entirely of swipes and touches of the text: not, as in a hypertext environment, selecting particular words and choices, but instead pinching portions of the screen together, pulling them apart, or sliding along a line of text. The hand is in contact with the screen almost all the time, and movement is almost always meaningful; operating PRY feels tactile and analog, like playing an instrument.

The conceit is that there are several layers of reality happening at a time. Though this is handled in different ways in different chapters, the general rule is that if we spread the page open, we’re opening the protagonist’s eyes, looking outwards, and seeing objective reality. Sometimes that objective reality takes the form of video about what is happening around us; sometimes it’s different text. Or, again, if we pinch the page closed on itself, we’re retreating into the subconscious, where flickering surreal images and rapidly cycling single words of text indicate our fears, our memories, our connections with the present. The subconscious recollection of childhood, or of an incident in war, might underlie our uncomfortable reaction to what is happening on the job site.

pry_brailleThemes of sight and the ability to see are crucial. In one chapter, we can read a braille passage about Jacob and Esau by swiping over the braille text; this functions as an audio scrub, moving the voiceover forwards and backwards. One can read tentatively, a single word at a time, or fast, fast enough to turn the words into semi-gibberish. This appealed to me on several levels: because it recapitulated the physical experience of the protagonist, and that is a level of involvement that iOS games are very rarely able to offer; because it put me in a position of temporary and uncomfortable illiteracy (I can’t read braille and the string of dots meant nothing to me on their own) that suggested helplessness; because I felt relieved when I was able to get the translation after all, via unconventional means.

(Ironically, I suspect that this would be a very difficult game to make accessible to visually impaired players, but I’m not sure.)

Elsewhere, PRY offers a text that opens and opens and opens. Initially there are just a few lines of text on the screen. Pinch them apart, and new sentences appear between old ones, expanding the narrative outward. Sometimes, in a virtuoso trick, the new sentences change the meaning of the sentences that come afterwards: a pronoun now refers to someone different, a description to something else. But the text has to work in both its closed and its open formats. There’s a lot of content here, too — you can keep expanding, keep reading more and more into the screen, for longer than seems plausible. And when there’s no more detail text to be read, sometimes peeking between the lines will instead reveal the subconscious response, flickering words that convey the protagonist’s ambivalence or fear. The lines that have been fully and wholly explored fade gently to a darker grey, guiding the reader to where new material remains to be seen.

It is, in short, an ergodic work that requires a reasonable amount of effort from the player, but the smoothness of the design means that that effort is low in friction and typically enjoyable. There are no choices available that will change what happens in the story, or even how the protagonist feels about them; our decisions are entirely about how deep we will go into the protagonist’s understanding, and what aspect of his experience we want to look at when.

PRY was released without all of its chapters, but even as it stands it is appealing and evocative, and very unlike most other interactive story interfaces I’ve encountered.

(Disclaimer: PRY came to my attention during IGF judging, but I played a copy that I purchased.)

Language and the Interface exhibit

Galatea at Coimbra

Language and the Interface was part of the international conference “Digital Literary Studies” hosted by the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Coimbra, May 14-15, 2015. They showed off a number of text-based interactive works, including Galatea, 18 Cadence, and Facade.

The website offers extra background on all the exhibits shown, and links to many of them to play online. I was particularly amused by the underachiever’s platformer Nothing You Have Done Deserves Such Praise, which offers explosions and lavish compliments when the player manages to do things like falling off a ledge — but there’s a lot else to check out here, especially for those interested in interactive poetry and the less game-like relatives of interactive fiction.

Games from GDC 2012

This year’s GDC brought me in contact with a wide range of really interesting games, demonstrating the incredible spectrum of what games are good at and for: not just frustration, fear, exploration, and adrenal rushes, but many stranger and more nuanced emotional reactions.

Here are some highlights of many different types, several from the IGF Expo floor and others from other encounters:

Storyteller by Dan Benmergui is an expansion of an earlier work of the same name (that I actually reviewed long ago). The winner of the 2012 IGF Nuovo award, Storyteller is a puzzle game whose mechanic is essentially about understanding the rules of comics, in good Scott McCloud style.

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“maybe make some change”

Aaron Reed’s “maybe make some change” is a more polished, web-accessible release of the work that premiered at the IF Demo Fair as “what if im the bad guy”. Aaron is releasing it today on the ten-year anniversary of the beginning of our war in Afghanistan. (Edited to add: there’s an authorial perspective on this piece here.)

When “what if im the bad guy” was presented at the IF Demo Fair, I didn’t get through it: the game play required putting yourself in the shoes of a soldier, committing violent acts and in some cases typing racial epithets. (At least, as I recall this was unavoidable, but I obviously don’t have access to that version to double check again.) This was just too uncomfortable for me to do in public, and possibly at all, so I put the game aside.

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IF Demo Fair: Desiring Flights and other interactive poetry

Desiring Flights (Barry Moon and Chris Danowski) is a word-centric work, though with strong visual elements in two of its three levels; I might be inclined to call it interactive poetry, but I’m not sure that’s the best description given that the words were as often props as they were objects of contemplation in their own right. To the extent that this piece belongs to an existing genre or formal tradition, though, it’s not one I know especially well; so rather than attempt a more formal critique, I’ll just give some subjective impressions.

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Prise Multiple

Prise multiple is a new project from François Coulon, creator of Le Reprobateur (“The Reprover”) on which I previously wrote here and here. Like Le Reprobateur, Prise multiple (“Multiple Takes” or else “Multiple Sockets”) allows the player to play with and recombine pieces of a story never fully spelled out, using segments of live video. The piece consists of a number of short scenes (listed down the left side of the screen), each performed four times with a different arrangement of actors. (One of them is the lead actor from Le Reprobateur.) Reshuffling the actors is rather fun, because they have distinctly different personal styles ranging from grave to smarmy. And the videos are very carefully timed to make this trick work; I hate to think of the technical effort that must have gone into making sure the dialogue timings were exact enough for easy switching.

The story that emerges is not meant to be taken seriously. The main character sits at his desk, haranguing three subordinates who never themselves speak, and who might from context be agents, policemen, private detectives, or something else entirely. (There is at one point a reference to their possessing uniforms, but they certainly don’t dress in uniforms during the shots we see.) The world of these characters has been overrun by “the punks,” who are responsible for everything wrong — from terrorism at the airport to cannibal attacks. The characters are largely off-hand about these disasters. (“The nuclear apocalypse that struck mankind two years ago… you remember it?”) Over the various scenes Prise multiple echoes and mocks many of the common tropes of disaster plots and superhero movies, from specific threats (kidnapping, hostage-taking, radiation, virus attacks, terrorists, cyborgs, space aliens, invisible ninjas) to the girlfriend you can’t keep because your enemies will get her and the hero with the suddenly-revealed tragic past.

As the themes of the work emerged, I often wondered whether I was missing something about French culture. If it is common to blame crimes on “the punks” in French news or political commentary, then perhaps there is more of a social critique here than I am entirely equipped to recognize.

From the perspective of someone perhaps lacking this context, Prise multiple is altogether a slighter piece than Le Reprobateur, and not particularly a game, but it is quirkily appealing.