Wednesday, October 14, 2015

IFCOMP'15: Birdland, Brendan Patrick Hennessy

A piece of work that both deserves a long article, and that somewhat foils it; one of those very, very well-made stories where neither the fiction nor the gamey parts admit of spacious analysis. In Twine.

I don't want to be making rash statements, but Brendan Patrick Hennessy is and is probably going to remain the best writer of prose in all my experience with this year's competition. Double bonus points for the fact that Birdland is almost entirely made out of dialogue. The subject-matter doesn't really incline oneself to think of something like this as an achievement in prose, but the color and character voice Hennessy injects into his, um, characters' voices (14-year-olds and girls, neither of which Hennessy is, to my knowledge) is a complete writerly success.

The story itself is Bridget's, a generally diffident, generally clumsy girl at summer-camp that starts having weird dreams about birds talking like mechanical engineers with sever head trauma, playing out different genre scenarios (first one is in the style of the Wild West, and they go on from there, science-fiction pointedly excluded). Hennessy's humor rarely missed with me, and the bird's stated purpose in these dreams is hilarious: they intend to learn about human behavior, yet in the "Pirate captain" section of Bridget's dreams the section ended with a beach party with the skeletons from Treasure Island, so the birds might have gleaned, if anything, some rich psychotherapy material and little else.

It's all light-hearted and charming (actually charming, not try-hard high-on-coke-desperate-joke-explaining charming) and later on crosses over simultaneously into the goofily bizarre and romantically engaging, a tough act, but Hennessy pulls it off.

Bridget could've easily been the classic empty-minded vessel for the reader, but both the goofy dreams and flavorful choices after each passage hint at an imagination and a character that made me feel not so much in Bridget's shoes and more like a school theater-director (or you know, a camp counselor) giving cues to an unruly actor. At first I thought it was an issue, but I let that go at some point.


Near the end, I found especially throat-lumpy the general drive away from humanity and understanding (in a, you know, goofy and charming way, no Indian black-and-white arthouse dramas here) and at the same time the under(or over?)current of romantic feeling coming to the fore, in these conditions specifically, with all the back and forth to the tune of "Give up!" on one side and "I'm with you!" on the other.

The ending also really got me, again with the lurking uncertainty if it's going to be a happy end, and where the separation of player and PC really helped - I, on one hand, was sure it's just a wrap-up, but Bridget, on the other, had some serious misgivings left about the new relationship she was in; and when they finally dispersed it was a happy end, and a relief, and a new warmth and appreciation for the main character(s).

Friday, October 9, 2015

IFCOMP'15: A Figure Met in a Shaded Wood, Michael Thomet

The subtitle of this is "A game about fortune telling and choices in video games." and the experience cleaves pretty close to it, except for the "game" part.

The commanding metaphor's tenor and vehicle are obvious, but I felt some ironic digs at other elements of video-games as well.

The thinly veiled Renaissance Italy where a vagabond wanders around, enters a clearing in the woods and has their fortune told, would probably be a reference to the thin fantasy settings that many RPGs take place. The choices, only three, leading up to the fortune-telling part in the clearing stretch rather comfortably on the "Self-interest - Altruism" axis, a perennial favorite of lazy RPG designers.

Now, I can't help but also wonder if that "video games" in the subtitle doesn't pointedly exclude text games. If so, the criticism I'm imagining would not be self-reflexively pointed at the very medium the author's chosen for it - and I think I'm okay with that. I believe that working interactively with text provides something much more fine-grained and suggestive to the people that are going to interact with it later, something that makes many graphical games with choices (especially the aforementioned RPGs) look like dull, clumsy slot-machines by comparison.

In the guise of the vagabond's life-path laid bare in the cards, AFMIASW also asks questions about the progression of a narrative where different choices would seemingly lead to different outcomes, including choices made apparently at random, like the manner in which the vagabond decides to shuffle the cards before the telling, and made simply, it seemed to me, to let the player see to what different outcome they could lead.

(There are lots of choices like that in many games, even choices meaningful by design, but made mindlessly by a tired/jaded/idly curious player who simply wants to see what more juice they can squeeze out of the game.)

Also, there's a certain, pretty creepily effective, metafictional moment at one point.

Now, I have a couple of criticisms, however. The entire experience is rather on the nose. It seems to care more about squarely making a point (directly or by implication) than doing that through engagement with the narrative. The subject matter is actually well-suited to the themes, but the writing was simply not up to par for me. There were a number of typos, like "sustinance" and "glistenes", also some grammatically and/or stylistically confusing sentences like these:

Looking down the path, the vagabond spies a light from the side of the path, flickering but warm. (you can't feel warmth from a light that you barely see) 
The vagabond walks along until they spy a figure, cloaked in shrouds and playing at something in their hands. After a moment's pause, the figure looks up, and a haggard voice emanates from the black void of the cloak. (playing at something? shrouds, plural? The haggard voice from a black void is also quite pushing the adjectival envelope, as well as the spying, again. I'm reminded of another game, not Tarot fortune-telling, that sort of spoils the atmosphere.)
 Too captivated to move, time seems to stretch out as the anticipation makes the vagabond lose nearly all sense of their self. (Grammatical agreement problem. Is time too captivated to move, or is it in fact the vagabond. Also, the whole sentence sort of trundles along rather heavily.)

These are symptomatic. Now, the whole thing is really short, so it's not that much of a problem, but still, it adds to my impression that AFMIASW doesn't really care about the narrative much. Still, I found some food for thought here.

IF Comp'15: Darkiss: Chapter One: The Awakening, Marco Vallarino

After my first few weeks of getting into IF, I haven't had the chance to play much parser fiction, and parser puzzles of the more usual sort aren't really my thing, so bear that in mind. (Having said that, Darkiss isn't really a challenge in that respect.)

The vampire Voigt, freshly awakened, has to find a way out of his own crypt and wreak revenge on the ones who drove a stake through his heart. Most of the narrative concerns Voigt restoring his memories by looking around the crypt's rooms, from which we learn that Voigt wouldn't be out of place either in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (to judge by the light-hearted glee Voigt feels at the remembered torture of friar), or Sesame Street (one of the puzzles involves counting snakes and spiders! Twice!)

I feel that this being a first chapter of a larger narrative sort of set me up to like this less than I otherwise would have. But I have other criticisms as well, unfortunately. 

The writing is pretty heavy-handed, and that's disregarding the fact that it's a translation, unless the siren call of writing in a foreign language prompted the author to add lots of ten-dollar words to the prose. In almost every place where an adjective could be inserted, it is. Now, sesquipedalian gyrations are more or less the norm in Gothic writing, but here the riff on Stoker is a bit too noticeable, even if it was intended (?) as a spoof.

Also, the conversation with the parser was rather stumbly, not because of difficulty issues, but because of the sheer amount of text in each response. It felt like Vallarino has tried to write a Gothic novel in parser form, and I'm not sure the two forms fit.