For new followers: My major hobby that isn’t music writing (which I guess isn’t a hobby anymore) is interactive fiction, a term that today means everything from old-school Infocom-style text adventures to experimental fiction. I’ve written some, I’m kind of hoping to finish one project by spring 2012 (famous last words), and when I have time, I try to keep up with the scene.
Anyway, every October since 1995, the community’s held a competition for new, short work, and the results are in. It’s been a strong year all-around, I think. I didn’t play everything because of deadlines, and I haven’t written up full reviews because of — well, deadlines again, plus I don’t have an IF-only site anymore because I don’t want to give BlueHost any more of my money (here’s why). But really — and like any good IF ambassador and/or person with a future project to promote, ahem — I want more people not steeped in the scene to play these. The medium’s never been more accessible. In-browser play is standard, interfaces are getting better, parsers are getting smarter and, at least partially thanks to app stores and shifting blog coverage, the boundaries are getting more permeable. In other words, these can be for you, too.
But enough evangelical crap; let’s get to the reviews. I’m only posting a few, for entries I liked; if something doesn’t make the list, it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it but that I probably didn’t play it. (These deadlines, man.) But this’ll still be a long post; there’s lots to like. Maybe you’ll like them too. (Spoilers, by the way, after the cut.)
The Play (3rd place): In one sense, author Deirdra Kiai is one of the more experienced entrants in the comp, at least in the indie-gaming scene, but she’s much newer to IF. This isn’t a traditional entry; it’s not parser-based but CYOA with state-tracking. This means one of two things, depending on whether you’re familiar with IF or not. If you are, it means it’s really promising that this scored so high when just a few years ago, at least some reviewers would nigh-automatically downgrade anything without a standard parser.
If you’re new to IF, though, this means that The Play has zero learning curve. If you’re familiar with hyperlinks, you know how to deal with this. Click on the words that look clickable. Some give you exposition, others are choices that advance the story, and it’s usually pretty clear which. (The art’s great, too, and while I didn’t think the IF scene necessarily had to redesign all its websites / interfaces from plaintext to 2010s specs like it’s done over the past few years, it does make them more welcoming to newcomers.) And apparently it works on mobile devices, although my smartphone isn’t quite that smart.
The Play’s premise is simple, on the surface: keep as many hijinks out of your final dress rehearsal as possible when you’ve got a jerkwad actor, inexperienced understudy, would-be standup comic and overworked stage manager (as if there’s any other kind) to placate at once. That alone, if written well, would be worth a 7 at least, and The Play’s writing is fantastic, especially during the [deliberately] shitty-Shaw play-within-a-play. Also, “James Dough” is perfect.
Hijinks aren’t all, though; how much gender crap you should be willing to tolerate or challenge, from whom and in what circumstances; how to deal with sexual harassment when your career’s at stake; how much you can redeem older, offensive literature or whether you should even try; where, and how often, you should wield the power you do have. (You play director Ainsley Warrington, and the game’s very careful not to specify his or her gender. It’s deliberate.)
It’s encouraging enough to see these themes a) tackled in IF at all, and b) handled deftly and not as polemics. (“Message games” don’t have a great track record.) What’s even more encouraging is that this doesn’t seem to have harmed The Play’s reception or rating at all. It’s gotten a fair bit of blog coverage, and — more to the point — the score spread and standard deviation don’t really show much of a backlash.
Taco Fiction (winner): In IF terms — which will probably mean nothing to some of you, so consider this paragraph for the scene folks: this is a cross between Everybody Dies, Anchorhead and some of those deadbeat-protagonist games that came out in clusters in the late ’90s. I’ll throw Rover’s Day Out (2008’s winner) in as well, not for similarities (they don’t exist) but for the fact that it’s much different than its title implies. (Yes, it’s a Pulp Fiction reference, but it was only one after the fact.) Author Ryan Veeder, for what it’s worth, said his main inspiration was last year’s Afflicted, but this isn’t nearly as gory and has about 15 fewer endings. If we get five more of these, though, someone needs to write about how that’s suddenly hugely influential.
The initial premise: you’re some schmo who, dumped, fired and desperate for cash, decides to stage the most inept bank robbery ever. No disguise. No working gun. No decent getaway car. No ability to figure out that those people gobbling burritos tacos at the counter. No ability to figure out that there’s a freaking Thoth cult in town until you stumble across it while botching the robbery.
This can be done really poorly — there’s a reason I didn’t name those ’90s anonymities — but Taco Fiction gets two things right. The writing’s above par (and, given the subject matter, mercifully short on the emo), and the implementation is solid. So you’re getting out of your miserable car stuffed full of miserable bills and full of miserable stains, and if you were on film you’d kick the damn thing. Oh hey:
As much fun as you thought it would be, by the time you get done beating up on your car, you’re the only one who’s sore.
When people talk about IF being well or poorly implemented, they mean one of two things. One, that it allows whatever arbitrary crap you type, like climbing yourself, rubbing the sun or typing “fuck”; two, that the story lets you, the player, act out what the character just naturally would do. I’ve quoted this review by Andrew Plotkin of Stephen Bond’s Rameses before because it’s still so on-point:
Oh, I am made happy. Happiness is occurring to me. Do you want to know why? Because after reading the opening text and looking around the initial room, the first substantive command I typed was “Gordon, fuck off”. And you know what the game responded? It said “In this story, to talk to somebody, use ‘talk to’.”
No, that’s not what makes me happy. What makes me happy is that I then typed “talk to Gordon”, and it gave me a list of six choices, and in the middle of the list of choices I read “(3) ‘Gordon, fuck off.’”
This, oh my children, is what it’s like for characters to come alive.
The implementation in Taco Fiction is solid throughout, both for tangents and for the main storyline — the puzzle cluing here’s near-perfect. Not everything’s perfect, mind. Zuleika’s a bit underwritten. She’s the threatened small-business owner, and her shop certainly has the right earnest “here is how our farm grew up big and strong” descriptive touches. But as for her, as a character, she’s almost certainly meant to be a love interest, but the subtext isn’t quite all there — enough that on my first playthrough, I thought I was filling it in from expectations. (It probably didn’t help that I broke into the pizza shop too early and noticed the wolf-mask guy’s abs [it’s that kind of games] a bit too often; I just assumed the PC was gay.) What is there veers MPDG (tattooed lady who, out of nowhere, gleefully encouraging you to try petty-to-unpetty crime? Check.)
As a hint system, Zuleika’s a lot better (and it works in context — going back to ask her about all the weird stuff going on is pretty plausible from a guy probably looking for reasons to go back and talk to a girl), but there’s some weirdness going on with programming flags. On the same playthrough, the PC somehow didn’t think a guy in a wolf mask blocking the pizza shop was weird enough to mention to Zuleika, even though a bird painted on a telephone pole qualified.
And although the satire’s apt — anything with a chamber-of-commerce cult meeting is going to win points from me — this municipal-government geek thought Taco Fiction ended right when things could’ve gotten interesting. The mayor’s on their payroll! He’s probably got allies on the city council! Maybe there’s an election coming up, maybe there are some more fun documents to track down, maybe you can get the press involved or dredge up some more The Wire shit. Of course, the protagonist probably wouldn’t care any of that stuff not directly pertaining to his newfound $50,000, but I bet Zuleika would. (I also feel like there’s a lot of unexplained backstory about the cult stuff existing in the first place, beyond being inherently funny, but I might just have missed it. Sam Ashwell sorta touched on this in his review.)
Now I’m just nitpicking, though, and imposing my own ideas. This was Veeder’s first full-length work and damn impressive even not knowing that. It’s good stuff; I gave it an 8.
(OK, wow, I’ve written so much about these two. Capsule blurbs for the next few:
PataNoir: High-concept wordplay frippery. Half the premise is “what if you could manipulate the objects in similes as if they were real?” In other words, if the sun makes the sidewalk sparkle like jewels, you just got rich. The other half is noir pastiche, not too far off from the detective pastiche author Simon Christiansen did last year with Death Off the Cuff. It’s not perfectly executed, and it’s very much style-over-substance, but there’s a very respectable tradition of this stuff, from Nord and Bert onward. Gave this a 7.
Tenth Plague: IF’s particularly suited to exploring complicity — making the player do all manner of horrible things to advance the game or story. Tenth Plague, by Lynnea Dally, applies this to the plagues of Egypt. Your job is to kill the first-born. You can refuse, but not only does that kill you, but your death doesn’t even matter; another avenger is sent in to do the exact thing, presumably more obediently. The seams show; the puzzle-by-puzzle structure gets in the way of the idea, and there’s one timing puzzle toward the end that completely distracted me — although I seem to be in the minority there. And the writing needs to be more than workmanlike and much more consistently detailed to really pull it off. Solid, though. I gave this a 5.