The Harbinger’s Head (Kim Berkley / Choice of Games Hosted)

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The Harbinger’s Head is a fantasy horror story from Kim Berkley, in Choice of Games’ Hosted Games category.  It’s set in 1820s Ireland, in which the player encounters a supernatural creature — a kind of headless horseman character — and has to agree to help find his missing head.

The story that follows is focused on action and folklore. You’re partly collecting stories to try to piece together what has really happened in this supernatural situation, but there’s also quite a bit of violence, and one moment where it felt like my protagonist was implicitly under sexual threat, though this passed quickly. Descriptions often focus on the physical, and the game’s text doesn’t hesitate to tell you when you’re supposed to be feeling afraid.

The diction of The Harbinger’s Head sometimes feels substantially more modern than its period — there’s a reference to cutting and pasting something, for instance, and while both concepts individually certainly existed in the past, the paired idiom belongs to the computer age.

But for the most part it does deliver on the folkloric feel. There are several types of faerie creatures, but not your standard vampires and werewolves. Promises are made in desperation and redeemed in less than ideal circumstances. Old bonds of family come into play; so does the conflict between Church and Faerie (though fairly lightly, in the playthrough I experienced).

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Wonderbook (Jeff Vandermeer)

wonWonderbook is a book about writing — not specific to games, but not unaware of games, either. It takes on many of the standard topics of general-purpose fiction writing guides — plot, character, world-building, revision, the life of the writer, how not to grow to hate yourself in this artform — but with an approach focused on speculative fiction, fantasy, and play. It’s also lavishly, vividly illustrated, with maps and diagrams, portraits and photographs, excerpts of medieval manuscripts, and quite a lot else. There are writing exercises, of several kinds. There are cartoon characters who introduce advice and tips. There are inserted essays and tips from other authors. There are reflections on the history of imaginative literature.

Also, Vandermeer is a good prose stylist, and this is something that cannot be said of all writers of writing books. (You might think…? But no.)

It’s the kind of book that will delight the curious and frustrate the conscientious — since there’s a perennial feeling one might be missing something as one reads. I read it with pleasure, and just a tiny bit of panic that I might be reading it incorrectly and missing things. To be clear, I think this is my problem and not the book’s.

Actually, the book calls me out on precisely this, in its way:

Inherent in this idea of “play” being immature and frivolous is the idea that just like business processes, all creative processes should be efficient, timely, linear, organized, and easily summarized.

Almost certainly there are some diagrams, sidebars, etc., that I did not fully digest before writing this review. I think the book considers that okay, though.
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Zeppelin Adventure (Robin Johnson, Spring Thing 2018)

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Robin Johnson’s Versificator engine is designed to give the player access to a parser IF-like world model but a choice-based interface, free of verb-guessing. The two previous games in this space, Draculaland and Detectiveland, feature navigation and inventory puzzles that feel quite text adventure-like, but in a more accessible format.

At any given time, the player has quite a few choices available — usually one or several movements between rooms, as well as ways of examining or interacting with environmental objects, and then some things that you can do with your inventory items. But these aren’t listed all in one place; instead, choices associated with something in your inventory become visible only when you’re carrying that inventory item. So there are partially hidden options, and you do generally have to draw some connections yourself before being able to execute a puzzle solution.

zepellincover.jpgFeatured in Spring Thing 2018Zeppelin Adventure continues that tradition, set this time in a wacky-explorer universe where people are plotting out Mars from their giant balloons. Yours, however, suffers an accident and crash-lands on a planet dominated by robots, and you have to go on a quest to find repair parts for your engine.

As the cover art suggests, this is a pulpy kind of story that leans into certain genre conventions both present and historical.

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

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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.

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The 39 Steps (John Buchan remade)

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The 39 Steps app is an adaptation of the book and movie of the same name, available on Steam. It gets a lot of comments about how it is not a game, which is probably unsurprising given the Steam audience. Some of the things written about it make defenses about how it’s really meant to be an enhanced book, and therefore the lack of gameplay is to be expected.

I don’t demand recognizable gameplay elements in my interactive stories, but I do want some consistency in how the interface works and how it’s engaging the audience.

39 Steps uses interaction and gestures for pacing: click to move the story onward and read more text. Rotate the mouse to move the text forward or backwards. (I hated this one. I don’t have a mouse; I’m using a trackpad. I never quite worked out whether I was doing the gesture correctly.)

It also uses interaction to create a sense of place and context. Sometimes the text narrative will pause and put you in an environment with two or three interactive objects you can look at more closely. This is a bit like Gone Home with less walking or looking for pale pixels in dim corners, which, in my view, is a net positive. The main narrative is full of pompous, stalwart-colonial stuff about going to South Africa and establishing diamond mines, or the protagonist’s friend deciding to try his luck in the Congo. This is true to its original period but hard now to read without at least an undercurrent of distress. So when in the protagonist’s club we find objects such as this:

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…they serve to ground the story more concretely in its particular time, and to suggest that the app doesn’t uncritically approve of all this empire-building. (Unless, that is, you’re the sort of person who can look at that map and think “Rah, the good old days!”)

All the same, though, it felt like an adaptation without a strong understanding — as though someone had looked at the original story and asked where they could stick in some pictures and clickable bits, rather than reimagining it from the ground up as an interactive story.

This piece was recommended to me by someone who finds most traditional interactive fiction disappointing, because they’re looking for more audio-visual richness.

(Confession: I found this piece sufficiently irritating to interact with that I did not complete the whole thing.)

 

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.

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