IFComp 2016 – Interactive Fiction Reviews

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The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation runs a yearly competition for interactive fiction called IFComp. Though it’s been flourishing for many years, I hadn’t heard about it before this year, and too late to be able to plan and execute a worthy submission. Still, nothing’s preventing me from browsing the 50-odd submissions and looking for something to catch my eye. As a novice to IF I’ve only had hands-on experience with a very few platforms for writing or playing it. IFComp, though, exposes a whole array of techniques and manipulations that I wasn’t previously familiar with. Needless to say, this affected my play experience significantly.

Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending – K.G. Orphanides

This was the first entry I played. Eight characters is a parser game, where commands can be entered in the text box or through navigation links. Some of the commands are helpfully explained in the in-universe manuals. Some are fairly intuitive, once you catch the trick of it – another effect of my being a novice player. I fussed for a long time over trying to open a simple chest before I learned to adjust to the game’s expectations.

The game opens on the protagonist waking up in an alien space, a classic device used to good effect. This temporary ignorance serves to justify the player’s fumbling search of the confined space they woke up in, a single-occupant spaceship with no more than 7-8 spare rooms. Limiting the scope allows the player to explore every corner, in addition to building up the story’s oppressively close and limited point-of-view. A game style that’s designed for giving the player maximum choice, serves best to describe the lives of characters whose choices are catastrophically confined.

The protagonist of Eight characters is a soldier in the armed forces of a militant expansionist Earth-based space empire. A flaw in their ship’s computer functions leaves them with a loophole through which to manipulate their orders. Dark but not fatalistic, the game hints strongly at three possible resolutions to its central conflict. While none of the outcomes are classic happy endings, the player’s effect on historical events is definite and noticeable, making this an ultimately optimistic game.

For a given value of optimism, anyway.

Find the game here

Mirror and Queen – Chandler Groover

This game is less of a story and more of a character sketch, looking at the Queen from the tale of Snow White, and dwelling on her final thoughts on the night when she decides to arrange her rival’s murder. The player is prompted to direct the Queen’s stray thoughts as she looks into her magical mirror. Entering keywords into the text box brings up a short descriptive passages exploring the Queen’s back story, if the word is in the data bank. For entries the parser recognizes, it spits out one of several different texts which creatively redirect the player to choose another subject.

The words the parser recognizes are mostly intuitive, although not necessarily direct keywords taken from the original fairy tale. It’s also worth noting that the text never repeats, even if one enters different words describing the same concept, like “daughter” and “princess”, or “crown” and “throne”.

The Queen narrates the game in second person, an IF convention that doesn’t fit quite as well here. Given that the course of the story isn’t altered by the player’s actions, it feels less like a choice-based narrative and more like an interview, where the player represents a second character speaking to the Queen. It felt to me like the story would read more naturally in first person.

As a protagonist, the Queen is very aware of her role as a villain in the story. Her answers depict her as a woman living under constrained circumstances, locked into her course in life and making the best of the limited options available to her. She describes, herself, the bad end she’s certain she will come to, and doesn’t mince words when describing how the court adores Snow White and loathes her. The violent descriptions in some of the answers are quite graphic and detailed.

The game winks and nudges at the idea that “a witch is a princess who didn’t get saved”, but doesn’t seem interested in digging too deep into it. Then again, that could be a side effect of the keywords I chose. About two thirds of the way through the game (which updates helpfully with how many questions you have left) I started to run out of ideas. The scope of the game is pretty wide, though, if you’re interested in learning a villain’s thoughts about “soul”, “justice”, “mortality”, “gold”, “fate” and so on.

Find the game here

To The Wolves – Elliott White

This Twine game tells the story of a girl cast out by her village for mysterious reasons, who escapes her pursuers and tries to make a home for herself, living wild in the forest. Magic and mystery bubble up almost immediately, although the player has a choice in how thoroughly to pursue them. The game tracks two character stats, which map roughly to solving problems either directly or obliquely. In this game, it pays to make consistent choices.

Although the first part of the game focuses on the protagonist, Ella’s efforts to survive in the wilderness, it’s not really a survival game. Only a little atmospheric detail is given on her life in the mysterious forest shack, and the timeline is a little confusing. The story’s focus quickly moves to the nature of the forest itself, and the otherworldly secrets it hosts. Everything hints at whatever caused the villagers to cast Ella out, without needing to spell it out.

The hints she discovers, and her own recurring nightmares, show Ella to be an unusual girl. Exactly the sort of unusual girl one would expect to be the heroine of a story about outcasts and magic in an enchanted forest. She quickly discovers that she is not the first or only person to have been in this situation, although the signs are ominous at worst, depressing at best. Still, the player may view the changes to her life optimistically, as she is finally free of the judging eyes of her unfriendly neighbors.

This, then, gets at the core of the game’s concept: this is a story about outsiders. In that respect it’s a very Twine-appropriate story. Twine has pretty quickly established itself as a popular storytelling tool for narratives very social and psychological in their preoccupation, especially those of marginalized writers. Although To The Wolves is not a socially conscious or political game, it lives in the tradition of the fantasy genre, of rejects and loners and strangers in their own homes. It reminds me a great deal of the books I read as a teen.

Like those books, this story has a gratifying aspect to its resolution. Ella gets more than one opportunity to make clear to her former neighbors how little she cares about their disapproval. Revenge also marks out a big portion of the plot, and it can be as brutal and pitiless as the player feels inclined. The forest Ella lives in is full of vengeful spirits, and the three-way interaction between spirits, humans, and Ella herself both fuels the game’s plot and determines its resolution.

Find the game here

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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