Spring Thing 2016: Dr Sourpuss is Not A Choice-Based Game; Three-Card Trick


I’ve been playing more of the games from this year’s Spring Thing. (You too can play! And vote! And review, if you wish!)

Dr. Sourpuss Is Not A Choice-Based Game is a lightly puzzly piece about the destructive nature of standardized testing, the fact that a lot of challenges are really multiple-choice even if they look otherwise, how tests can encode racist standards, and how some things (such as sport) resist such handling — all bounced off the choice-vs.-parser debate. The game includes Twine-like portions mingled with other segments that involve other methods of problem solving, including typing at the very end. The About text suggests that the author means to stake out a position that will annoy people of all political stripes; perhaps I am reading badly, but I failed to be annoyed about its politics.

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What Fuwa Bansaku Found (Chandler Groover)

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 9.09.45 PMWhat Fuwa Bansaku Found is a new piece at Sub-Q by the astonishingly prolific Chandler Groover. In it, the eponymous samurai must investigate a haunted shrine: the emperor has sent him there, but the emperor was certainly spurred to do so by Bansaku’s enemies at court. The piece draws on translations of Japanese poetry, plots from kabuki, and images from woodblock prints.

It is a parser game, but a relatively accessible one. As with quite a bit of Groover’s other parser work, Fuwa Bansaku tightens the list of needed verbs to a simpler subset of the usual library. It also gets rid of the standard compass directions and acknowledges ADVANCE and RETREAT instead. This serves the piece well: it’s quite short, and not having to worry about a possible complicated map frees the player to concentrate on other concerns. (Gun Mute also does this, but it’s a comparatively rare feature in parser IF.)

Then, too, a number of the responses specifically prompt what the player should do next:

>x grass
These long grasses resemble hairs
growing from a courtesan’s skull.
They tower around Fuwa Bansaku.
He will search them.
>search grass
Fuwa Bansaku pushes the long grass
aside with one hand at his katana.

In a different context, this kind of guidance might be exasperating. But Bansaku is extremely focused and brief.

These hints also serve as a reminder that the character of Fuwa Bansaku is not the player. He is someone specific and skilled, a man of culture and intrigue and warfare. In fact, he is based on a historical figure, though with considerable embellishment. What’s more, everything he encounters in this haunted shrine receives a short but evocative description. Every item seems to point back to the details of the experience that sent him here.

Even though the piece is quite short, there is room enough in Groover’s story for several surprises. A lovely, eerie meditation on what is truly monstrous.

Dynamic Fiction via Some Examples

“Dynamic fiction” is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work, especially but not limited to her serial story Bloom.

As I understand it (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting too much here), the term is chosen specifically to get around some of the expectations people have when they hear the phrase “interactive fiction.” Dynamic fiction allows minimal plot branching, if any: the reader is not being allowed to change the course of events, which may be completely linear. From a CYOA structures perspective, we’re talking about structures that either look like a friendly gauntlet without delayed consequence, or structures that actually literally are a straight line.

Instead, the interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.

To answer the question “why isn’t this just a short work of static fiction?”, I’ve picked out what I consider the best exemplars of each of the major dynamic fiction effects I’m aware of.

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IF Comp 2015: Taghairm (Chandler Groover)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games.

Taghairm coverThis year I’m reviewing things that I can generally recommend. On this particular post, I want to bracket that a little bit: Taghairm has violence and cruelty content warnings, for good reason. It may not be for everyone. It arguably wasn’t really for me. But I think what it’s doing is interesting and want to talk about it anyhow. This clears the bar for “worthwhile” in my view.

This is a piece that took me a few minutes to play to the ending that I reached. There is another ending that takes longer; I did not get to that ending.

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IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Midnight Swordfight cover Midnight. Swordfight. is a parser game with an experimental world model, many possible outcomes, some puzzly aspects that nonetheless don’t make the game too horribly hard, and really delicious writing. It is the work of Chandler Groover, who has been prolific this year, with Toby’s Nose and Down, the Serpent and Sun and another game in this very competition, not to mention Tailypo in the October lineup of Sub-Q magazine. It took me only about 15-20 minutes to reach one possible outcome for the game, but I didn’t want to stop at that point, and played to others, for a total of about an hour and a half of play time. It is aggressively non-linear.

Note that despite its playfulness, low-difficulty design, and use of animal costumes, this game is not what is generally meant by “suitable for children”. Indeed, it is graphic in ways that some adults may find not their thing. I didn’t feel that these were gratuitous in context, and I wasn’t offended by them; but since I’m about to praise this game and encourage willing folks to play it, I feel like I should hang a bit of a warning up first. Regard the references to sex and violence in the blurb as R/NC-17 level content warnings, not PG-13.

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