One last week of Spring Thing coverage.
For those of you who have missed the past couple of weeks: I have taken a break from Infocom coverage to write about Spring Thing, an annual online festival of new interactive fiction. Specifically, I’ve been writing about entries that caught my interest for one reason or another. What kinds of things catch my interest?
- I like some settings/genres more than others (sci-fi and horror in particular).
- When playing IF games, I want to make impactful choices.
- Visual novels intrigue me.
- Good writing–both technically as well as in terms of a strong narrative hook–pulls me in.
- I’m open to both choice and parser games.
- Unless the puzzles are mechanically novel or unusually organic, I do not enjoy “puzzle fests.” Historical cases in which novelty or innovation made all the difference include Enchanter, Counterfeit Monkey, and Hadean Lands.
I decided not to write about games that I did not enjoy. I thought: why spend energy on things I don’t like? This isn’t like my Infocom playthrough, where I have to play and write about everything–even Seastalker.
I have an MFA in creative writing and half of a PhD. I’ve edited a literary magazine and two collections of poetry. I have told many people, over the years, what might or might not be improved in their writing. These experiences do not include the time I’ve spent teaching writing at the college level. I’m not interested in doing that with interactive fiction, something I’ve gotten into as a less stressful alternative to the rejection-heavy world of literary writing.
I’ll also say this, as a person who has spent years thinking about critiquing other people’s art: there is tremendous social pressure for writers to express gratitude and enthusiasm when people point out perceived “problems” in their work. Nearly no one will confess if they do not appreciate that kind of feedback. The expectations that they will be gracious and grateful are a constant source of pressure. So: just because someone expresses interest in criticism does not mean they are, in fact, interested. Neither you nor I know the sort of emotional investment someone has made in a piece of their own writing, nor can we know the way criticism will affect them. Their public reactions and behaviors are, I’ve found, no indication at all.
Having dealt with writers face to face for years has taught me: publicly finding fault with someone’s work is an ethically fraught, high stakes activity that should never be entered into casually or carelessly. Frankly, doing so in the right way requires more energy and care than I can give. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t review it. I found this decision quite liberating.
I published reviews of 12 out of 47 entries for Spring Thing. I looked at many more besides that I chose not to write about. There are several others that I could not get to. What does this mean? For one, it means that entrants can’t know for certain whether I disliked their game or not. I nominated one entry for a “Best in Show” ribbon, and additionally nominated three other games for other recognition. This was, in other words, a great experience that I may well repeat in the future. There were downsides, of course. The first and most obvious one is that I have delayed work on Gold Machine’s core mission: playing and critiquing Infocom games.
The second issue is that playing all of these games has stalled progress on my own Inform 7 game, and I am eager to get back to that!
This will be the last week of Spring Thing coverage at Gold Machine. It seems interest at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum has dramatically slowed (or, at least, engagement with my reviews has), and it’s time for me to get back to work.
With all of that said, on to this final roll-up of Spring Thing reviews!
The Bones of Rosalinda
The Bones of Rosalinda by Agnieszka Trzaska is a Twine game with a fun and novel central mechanic. The protagonist is a skeleton named Rosalinda that can detach their arms and/or skull, controlling them independently. The player can additionally control Rosalinda’s friend Piecrust the mouse, so there are a total of five playable characters.
This is a rather complex arrangement compared to most (nearly all) Twine entrants in Spring Thing and the author has capably implemented such features in a way that *usually* affords an intuitive and rewarding experience. The goal of the game is to foil a necromancer who plans to build a conquering army of zombies. Along the way, Rosalinda and Piecrust must befriend an Ogress and defeat a demon or two.
This game features lighthearted, third person prose that gives it the feel of a fairy tale or perhaps a bedtime story. I enjoyed it mechanically and was charmed by its writing. I should mention that the Twine interface as implemented seemed to fall short during the finale. I knew exactly what I needed to do but wasn’t sure how to do it. I’m sure that such a thoughtfully written game will, in time, address such issues. Highly recommended (IFDB page)!
The Wolf and Wheel
The Wolf and Wheel is a visual novel by Milo van Mesdag (writer), Angus Barker (illustrator), and Jason Ebblewhite (programming). It was written for the Ren’Py engine, a popular public domain VN authoring system. Since I am interested in visual novels and am happy to see them discussed in Interactve fiction spaces, I was enthusiastic about giving this game a try.
My enthusiasm, fortunately, persisted throughout the experience. The story involves a world in which night has inexplicably endured over the course of months–maybe more. Dangerous creatures thrive in this darkness, and it is unclear whether humanity can coexist with them. A woman who works at an inn/restaurant suddenly finds herself able to enter the memories or stories of other people and is able to control their actions–sometimes rewriting history in the process! In this way, time travel and dark fantasy–two genres I enjoy–are melded in a new and interesting way.
As in most visual novels, there are not many choices, but they seem impactful. This short game has 11 different endings. The central problems of the work are these: there is no music, there is not enough artwork, and the language does not always feel idiomatic. Still, I enjoyed the story so much that I am able to forgive some of these problems; it was good experience.
According to the authors, this is only a demo, and I’m sure we will get more art in a final release. Recommended for fans of VNs or dark fantasy, though you may want to wait for a final version (IFDB page).
You, Me and Coffee
You, Me and Coffee by Florencia Minuzzi is a small game written in Bitsy. As the photo indicates, it is presented in two-bit color that resembles the graphics of a Nintendo Game Boy. The visuals kicked my nostalgia into high gear, and that was the initial hook that drew me in.
The text itself is only OK. The protagonist runs into an ex-girlfriend at a coffee shop, and they have a brief exchange. The only choices involve the order in which the player selects discussion topics from the titular options of you, me, and coffee (I finally got my serial comma in!). These choices do lead to markedly different outcomes, and by the end it is clear that the protagonist treated her badly–or at least thoughtlessly. It is not clear the extent of his behavior, teenage romance being what it is, but it is clear that our conversation partner feels hurt.
After going through the six possible options, a seventh ending is unlocked, in which the protagonist apologizes profusely before banishing themself from the coffee house. Since they do not witness the other six exchanges, it is not clear how they arrive at their understanding of past events. I did not arrive at this understanding, either–I witnessed the apology, but I did not feel it as cathartic or curative.
Still–I celebrate this interface and visual presentation, which I consider a real knockout. Readers interested in retro-like games may enjoy looking into the Bitsy platform (IFDB page).
Cody Gaisser’s Hinterlands: Marooned! is a one-turn game (examining things doesn’t count as a turn) in which an unfortunate space-traveller finds themselves face-to-face with a Q’udzlth, a rather horrific and dangerous alien creature.
Even though it is quite different, playing it reminded me of Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die, a controversial one-turn game from 1996. Since I still laugh about PUP&D, this is not a bad thing. There are many more ways to die in Hinterlands: Marooned, but by the tenth death I was laughing all over again. If there is a way to beat this game, I never found it. Instead, what we get is a very thoroughly implemented monster and a surprising number of working verbs. You can, for instance, Dance With the Q’udzlth and Die.
As limited as this experience is, it is a fun toy that will not, like some games, demand several hours of your time. Definitely worth a few minutes of experimentation (IFDB link).
ADRIFT by Pinkunz is a short demo with appealing graphics that are reminiscent of Sierra’s EGA period. While I think I would need to see more before evaluating the story or prose, I did enjoy the two puzzles based on Newtonian physics. While they weren’t hard, they were entertaining and satisfying. Who knows what the future holds, but I think this may be a game to watch (IFDB page).
Of the handful of parser games that I saw, Fairest by Amanda Walker is the clear contender for a Best in Show ribbon. Mechanically, it’s obviously been constructed with care. Fairest has in-game hints and a command for tracking the player’s current goal. It generously offers 13 endings, all of which are worth reading. Ease of use makes this game a good choice for novice and experienced players alike, and while the puzzles are not hard, they involve doing what I like to call “cool stuff”: talking to animals and looking into a mirror that functions as an extended fourth wall gambit.
The story is not terribly novel, but its presentation, chosen emphases, and postmodern flourishes certainly are. A prince competes with his half-brothers for the right to succeed the current king, who is in poor health. Thanks to us, the players–we are explicitly given credit–the rather inept Prince Conrad succeeds in three contests, ultimately winning an opportunity to marry one of a surprisingly numerous count of women (my favorite was the nixie). In each case, the author turns a critical eye to the misogyny inherent to most (all?) fairy tales, particularly those that end in marriage.
Fairest is highly recommended. Since it is a short game that requires only a couple of hours, it’s a fine way to spend an afternoon (IFDB link).
Infocom, Infocom, and more Infocom! In order to get back into the swing of things, I will publish a short one-shot about the transition from folio to grey box formats later in the week. Besides being important for the mission of this page, covering this change will set things up for a future essay about Cornerstone (we are almost halfway through 1984!).
We’ll then dive into Cutthroats, Mike Berlyn’s final IF game with Infocom. While a common reaction to it is ambivalence, Cutthroats does have its passionate and vocal supporters. Which one are you? Drop me a note.
Also: what do you think about covering contemporary IF news from time to time? Let me know.
See you later in the week for “Infocom: Material Histories!”