IF Comp 2015: Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

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.)

coverBirdland is a sizable Twine story about 14-year-olds at a summer camp, social skills, first crushes, and a sort of science-fictional strand. It took me somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes to read. (I keep meaning to time myself properly on these things and then I wind up getting interrupted somehow and not doing so. Maybe rough estimates are still useful?)

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This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

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As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

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Videogames for Humans (ed. Merritt Kopas)

VFHcvrI’ve mentioned the existence of this book before, but only recently did I get my own contributor copies of Videogames for Humans, an anthology of Twine playthroughs annotated by their players. (Here’s Robert Yang talking about the anthology; here’s me talking about Robert Yang talking about the anthology.) It’s a big chunky paperback, devoted to the unexpected task of demonstrating an interactive art form on paper, through transcripts.

Here’s something excellent from this book: Naomi Clark’s playthrough of Horse Master. It takes much longer to read than the game takes to play for the first time, because it is digging into details of wording and implementation. It reveals the game’s innards and explains them. It is also both lovely and funny. You should absolutely play Horse Master yourself first: you’ll enjoy both the game and the analysis more if you experience them in that order.

Here’s another: Riley McLeod’s playthrough of Benji Bright’s Fuck That Guy, about the experience of being a queer trans man playing a game about cis gay sex, and the ways that that does and does not feel familiar, the things that are inviting and the things that are off-putting.

Or: Squinky on Jeremy Lonien and Dominik Johann’s The Message. “I don’t know what it is about pianos in slapstick comedy,” they write, and then go on to explain what it is, which is awesome.

Or: Patricia Hernandez on Elizabeth Sampat’s Nineteen, which is about a suicide attempt that failed, and if it hadn’t failed then, among many other more important losses, I would never have met Elizabeth and played Deadbolt with her.

Or: Anna Anthropy writes a charming response to Michael Brough’s Twine about losing a scarf, a story that sounds trivial but in fact carries considerable feeling, about the importance of things in our lives and the difference between the things that we work on and invest in personally and the things that are fabricated for us by the machines of industrialized capitalism. This resonated with me.

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Beneath Floes (Bravemule, Pinnguaq)

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Beneath Floes is a folk tale of Inuit culture, created in collaboration with Inuit contributors. (There’s a browser-based play option as well, but at the time of writing, that version wasn’t serving audio well, so you may prefer the download.) Recently a Kickstarter raised the funds to have Beneath Floes translated into Inuktitut (an indigenous language of the eastern Arctic) and Anishinaabemowin.

It is both a story and a meditation on story-telling, one which starts by explaining to the reader how much is going to be under the reader’s control. Not a lot, as it turns out: you mostly get to change small details, details that explicitly don’t branch the plot, while the horrible core story is beyond the player’s capacity to change. But the effect is very different from, say, the also very linear interaction in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, or the fact-mingled-with-fiction of Coming Out Simulator 2014.

Nonetheless the small details that you’re allowed to affect are not selected arbitrarily. Does evil, in your mind, have a hooked nose or a button nose? Do you associate yourself with an indigenous hero or with Superman? Perhaps we’re allowed to make these choices because we inevitably see reflections of ourselves in the stories we’re told, no matter who the teller is. Elsewhere — a dark sort of joke — you can pick which of two strings of gibberish numbers and letters the qallunaat, the white people, have assigned you as your identifying marker; or, in another place, you can change (by one year) the date associated with an anthropological recording. History is slippery, but the fundamentals hold.

I appreciated, too, the passages where material that relies on cultural context is presented just clearly enough for someone not native to the Arctic to understand, but yet not overly explained. A favorite passage:

It’s said that your father shot a caribou and failed to kill it, but that’s one person’s belief—not a well-liked individual, either.

From context, it’s clearly a scandalous thing to fail to kill a caribou. A whole ethos is implied but not explained.

Beneath Floes is not completely linear, however. There are at least two endings that I found, and as far as I can tell, what makes the difference is what you decide about the protagonist’s willingness to do violence.