And now for something (not) completely different.
Stepping away From 1984
The Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction is a storied institution of the contemporary interactive fiction scene, and it has been, well, a thing since 2001 when it was founded by Adam Cadre. Since 2017, the festival has been run by Aaron A. Reed, who readers may recognize from all kinds of fantastic stuff like 50 Years of Text Games and Subcutanean. Under Reed’s leadership the ‘Thing has blossomed as an inclusive (in multiple senses) destination and the largest, most visible alternative to the annual Interactive Fiction Competition (or IFComp). While I didn’t write about the experience here, I did play and rate some entries in the 2021 IFComp. I enjoyed some of the games but realized that I do not enjoy quantifying my enjoyment with numerical values.
Spring Thing as an experience is less centered around ratings. I suppose the “best in show” ribbon will have to be awarded somehow, but I have not yet been offered a means for selecting it. Meanwhile, I have been checking out the games (you can play them all here!) and documenting my thoughts on games that meet my highly exacting criteria: I have to like them. I suppose I should add that I must also be able to think of something interesting to say about them. I do a brief write-up of each qualifying game here, on the Interactive Fiction Community Forum.
At Gold Machine, I’ll briefly summarize my thoughts before jumping off of this or that critical cliff. Here’s to jumping right in:
Crow Quest by rookerie
“Crow Quest” is a choice-based game written in Twine and consists of a gameplay loop of RPG-lite encounters. A crow with a rather silly name wishes to take over a rough neighborhood in Birmingham, England. They have an inventory of random (but surprisingly useful) items that are often handy in encounters with cats, mean children, and the like. There may or may not be a final battle that involves a reskinned “rock, paper, scissors” game that might just take just a little too long.
Still; the humor is great and the encounters themselves are interesting. Perhaps there should be more of them, or perhaps there ought to be a way to gather more items (tools). If the inventory runs out before reaching the final encounter, a rather tedious RNG loop ensues. “Crow Quest” is definitely worth a look for its humor and blockbuster art by Kate Thompson. If there is ever an expanded or rereleased version, I will be first in line.
Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi by E. Joyce and N. Cormier
Like “Crow Quest,” Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi uses the Twine platform to create engaging gameplay systems. In Thalia‘s case, this includes a simple yet highly engaging conversation system as well as a sort of “panache” rating for the exploits of famed (and stylish) English thief, Lady Thalia. Speaking of panache: the writing is of a very high quality, and I was driven to complete the story in one session.
I don’t want to spoil much, so I will just say that Lady Thalia gets involved with a police investigation, of all things, and works with her rival and and opposite number–an investigator with the London police–to catch a less-than-stylish, class-obsessed thief. The player has the opportunity to play as both Thalia and Margaret (the London investigator), and both characters are well-realized and fun to read about.
It’s All a Matter of Choice
Last week sometime, I found myself in an online exchange about “choice” games vs “parser” games. Choice games, like Crow Quest and Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi, offer the players explicit choices, like:
- Drink tea
- Eat sandwich
- Scratch chin
One might–unsuccessfully–argue that this is a less complex play style than that of a parser game (such as the many Infocom games we have discussed), but the reality is the potential for complexity is more or less the same. A small room with two sets of impactful choices would likely be more complex than many Infocom rooms, since most actions provide reader feedback (text), but do not change the game world.
Anyway: in this online exchange, it was implied that I might not like choice games because I like Infocom games. I wondered: is that really a thing? A lot of online places where I hang out have a significant overlap between point and click fans, parser fans, and old-school game book fans. It seems to me that lots of choice games scratch a game book sort of itch: text-rich (compared with parser games), impactful player decisions, and some variable tracking.
I say all this to say: at this late date, all that matters to me as a player is that artists are choosing the best platform for their subject matter. I’m not interested in sectarian nonsense about “interactivity” or “complexity.” In my old MFA days, I argued that a writer’s choices of format and structure were meaningful: they helped construct the meaning of a piece of writing. If I write a poem about, say, a car accident, it will matter whether I write a sonnet, a tanka, or a limerick. The meaning will be different as a consequence of that choice.
In Crow Quest and Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi, the platform matches the content; they work in concert, together. As with any other encounter with art, I want to think about the decisions artists make and how they lead–one must hope–to a fortuitous meeting.
I will continue Spring Thing coverage for at least one more week. Let me know if you are enjoying it! I’ll post reviews over at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum and do a roll-up here on Monday.
Once the dust has settled, we will return to Gold Machine’s previously scheduled grousing over the grey box format.