Another week of quality choice-based games at the Spring Thing.
For those of you who missed last week’s post: I’ve decided to take a break to cover the Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction. During the festival, you can play new works of interactive fiction, nominate your favorites for ribbons, or just follow the review hype over at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum. I was able to complete four games this week, and I enjoyed my time with them.
I’d like to talk about two lenses through which I’ve chosen to view these games: agency and, erm… whether a game is not like Infocom’s Journey (1989). Last week, I mentioned that I was not concerned in judging the “interactivity” of games. When I read a web forum on my phone, I am scrolling a lot. I’m touching a lot of links with my index finger. That’s all interaction. I would never tell someone I have been reading an “interactive” forum. I interact with my coffee cup quite frequently, but I don’t call my coffee “interactive.” I don’t think it means much as a designator.
One reason I like the term “agentic reading” more than “interactive fiction” is that while IF describes a wide spectrum of texts (visual novels, hypertext fiction, parser games, choice games, and the like) that may or may not have much in common, agentic reading refers to a player’s experience. That’s what I’m chasing with these games–an experience. In particular, I want to feel like I am determining outcomes through my actions as a player. If I’m reading hypertext fiction, I am definitely interacting with links, but I am not determining outcomes.
I am setting a low bar. I enjoy, for instance, visual novels which typically offer few choices that still may lead to various different outcomes (most have multiple endings). Choosing which item description to read first in a linear fiction is an interactive experience, but it is not agentic. Does that mean such stories are bad? Not at all. If you love those experiences, I’m not calling you wrong. It’s just that I already have a bookshelf full of linear texts that I would like to read before taking on anything new. Gold Machine has always been about experiences of agency–it’s right there in the author description.
Speaking of agency, Marc Blank’s Journey (1989) is a game full of impactful choices, even if it’s hard to tell which choices matter and which do not. In fact, based on my informal survey of contemporary reviews and online discussion, most of the people who play Journey spend a good amount of time knowing they did something wrong without knowing what that something was (myself included). In my recent conversation with Callie Smith about Journey (available on all major platforms or here at the host) we talked about how Journey is what I would call a productive failure. While Blank’s design unsuccessfully applied parser conventions (a single, true ending, a world best suited to a “wide middle” layout, and an overarching, game-long puzzle whose management overshadows the plot) to a choice-based narrative, he did manage to zero in on a crucial advantage of choice over parser platforms. Choice narratives are, by virtue of their structure, inherently capable of delivering experiences of narrative propulsion, and are better suited to delivering on the strengths of a traditional fiction experience while still empowering the player to make decisions.
In recognition of this strength, Infocom’s marketing department called Journey a “role-playing chronicle” (Blank preferred “role-playing fiction), and it’s an accurate take. The transcripts of Journey play sessions do in fact read like a novel, and Blank structured the text in a way to accommodate this novelistic view (you can view my transcript here). Since I played so many choice games this week, it may be interesting to consider how this genre has grown in sophistication since Journey‘s poorly-received 1989 release. The order of games discussed is coincidental; these are all titles that were randomly selected for this week’s play.
In Orbital Decay, a catastrophic accident has befallen a space research station. The entire crew, excepting the protagonist, has died. Key systems (electric power, orbital thrusters) have failed, and the player must find a way off of the station before it burns up in the atmosphere of a distant planet. Unlike Journey, the player has freedom to explore and backtrack as needed. This prevents frustration, but at the same time reduces the tension. Sometimes impending doom is promised, but the moment never seemed to come. I do not think there is a turn limit.
The strength of Orbital Decay is its attention to science. The author uses just the right amount of scientific information for the player to experience a classic hard science fiction ambiance without getting bogged down in excessive detail. While I felt educated more than once, I never felt that the game was educational. The author also does a good job of communicating key dangers to the player. If something goes wrong, they player will likely know what to try next.
Orbital Decay is very much a work in progress. This is Kayvan Sarikhani’s first Twine game, and they have expressed a desire to improve the writing, replace public-domain images, and expand the soundtrack. While it is a worthwhile experience as is, some players may want to watch its IFDB page for a future, enhanced release. Did I mention that Sarikhani wrote and performed the theme music? I found it atmospheric and evocative.
An excellent first game that will, in all likelihood, get even better.
George and the Dragon
Custom engine (I think)
This may be a controversial statement: I was glad to see a visual novel entry in this year’s Spring Thing. While they are often critiqued for their lack of
interactivity agency, I think, pound for pound, the impact of choices in visual novels tends to be greater than in the typical agentic text. They may contain few choices, but those decisions tend to have big consequences. I also think that artwork and music, when done well, set them apart from their more granular brethren. I personally enjoy a well-illustrated VN and typically try to unlock all of the images.
Enter George and the Dragon, a VN set in a rather traditionally medieval setting (well, mostly) with multiple endings. I personally enjoy familiar fantasy settings (unless they’re from Tolkien. Enough is enough!), which can feel like putting on an old, soft flannel shirt. In this case, a village must sacrifice a young “maiden” to a marauding dragon every year (I think) if they want to keep it from destroying their homes. The princess, with whom the protagonist is friends, “wins” a lottery to become the next sacrifice. The protagonist–you must have guessed this already–must prevent the sacrifice. As in Journey, it becomes clear that choices matter, but it is not always clear which choices or why. While I applaud the game’s multiple endings, it can be frustrating trying to find them.
The imagery from George and the Dragon does not always seem relevant. The characters are dressed strangely for the setting. I wonder if the images were generated from stock/free assets. The music gives off a similar feel. Sometimes it fits, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since there is no credits or about message in-game, there isn’t a way to know what the author’s future intentions are with regard to its multimedia elements. Perhaps they are placeholders. Then again, this may be their best and final version. You have to create an account to play the game, which is a rather big ask.
I’m writing about George and the Dragon not because I am in love–it needs work–but because I want to encourage readers to think about visual novels as part of the wider IF world. I also think that it’s important to acknowledge the unique technical demands (different images, art assets and music, multiple ending branches) that the form demands. I am curious to see where Pete Chown takes things from here and will keep an eye on George and the Dragon‘s IFDB page.
New Year’s Eve, 2019
In my review over at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, I remarked that New Year’s Eve, 2019 initially presents itself as a relative of Infocom’s Suspended rather than Journey. A player is able to click on a “status” link to reveal hunger, thirst, and an emotional state (“wistful” at game’s opening). Clicking through to a “people” link there are descriptions of the game’s cast, as well as numerical values characterizing a “relationship status” with a number (0-5) for three of the characters. There is also a clock: is the goal to complete something before a New Year’s party ends? Or is the objective surviving and enduring until it is time to go home? The protagonist has the option of declaring:
You can approach these gatherings mechanistically, orchestrating a series of events that will achieve all your goals in an optimal fashion, while minimizing your exposure to awkwardness and food poisoning.
And yes, at first a player might think: hell yes, I can do this. I can juggle multiple and competing goals, I can meet those metrics, I can win. But this isn’t Suspended, which seems impossible but really isn’t. My read on the stats is this: they assert that there is, in fact, a way to win, but it isn’t for the player. It isn’t for you. Winning is for other people. It’s a bit heartbreaking, trying to push through the protagonist’s crippling anxiety to connect with somebody, anybody in a fulfilling and human way.
If you do your best, you may be able to get somewhere, but you’ll never feel like you belong at the party. I once had an experience of “cringe” (in bolded letters, no less) and wanted to walk away.
This all sounds pretty dark, but lots of good art is dark. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid saying too much, as it’s better to find out for yourself. Very strong piece.
Computerfriend is another game that could be spoiled by saying too much. It takes place sometime after a massive ecological disaster in an ugly and hostile game world. At the game’s outset, you begin receiving therapy from an artificial intelligence program: your computerfriend. Its speech is almost credibly human but is missing just enough to unnerve.
There are some interesting tricks with the interface, and I was very impressed with Computerfriend technically. There are six endings available. I played through two of them, and they were satisfyingly different. This is yet another strongly recommended entry (IFDB page).
While all of these games are more mechanically rewarding to me than Journey, I do celebrate its pioneer spirit. Who would guess, three decades later, that choice games would captivate so many of us?
Even though I haven’t gotten any comments, traffic has been high. That being so, I’ll continue Spring Thing coverage for at least one more week, maybe more. I know there is one big parser game that I need to play, so a lot depends on where it falls in my list!
A question: if Callie and I played a few choice games (past or present) for the podcast, what would you suggest? As always, you can get in touch via the comments form, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or just @ me.