Top 10 Interactive Experiences of 2017

I knew I wanted my December post to be a retrospective of the year in interactive narrative, but I admit that felt fairly daunting to me. Top 10 lists in IF/games are sometimes personal favorites and sometimes symbolic of the state of the field. And there is a lot of importance in this sort of curation; here’s a few of my favorite curated lists. But this was a really dark year for a lot of people, and the attention economy felt particularly stretched. It was weird to promote work when it felt like the world was falling apart: I delayed the announcement that my game What Isn’t Saved (will be lost) was accepted to Indiecade for a day because some terrible thing happened. I think it was Flynn getting indicted? I honestly can’t recall. (I just went and looked it up: it was the end of DACA.) It also felt difficult as a consumer to consciously set time aside to immerse myself in a narrative: whether that was a novel, a browser narrative, a short story, or a downloaded game from Steam or itch.io.

There was so much out there this year that I enjoyed, or that I didn’t have time for but I know I would have enjoyed. So this list is ten pieces I loved, that made my year worth it, and which I have recommended over and over to people asking about the most striking, satisfying, pleasurable, or meaningful interactive narratives of 2017. It’s not exhaustive or comprehensive; but these are the pieces released this year that I have found myself most often praising and evangelizing for.

1) Harmonia 

Harmonia was my most anticipated game of IF Comp 2017. Liza Daly had already caught my attention with Stone Harbor and Seraphs, and a narrative that draws on Eastern seaboard women’s colleges, utopian literature, and marginal writing and combines all these themes into a flawless presentation was going to impress me (and also make me very, very jealous). Built in Windrift, Daly’s interactive narrative platform, Harmonia shows off its features while playing deftly with intertextuality. Harmonia is ostensibly a written document with significant marginalia, put together by Abby Fuller, and found in the Blithedale College library. The work uses a variety of text and image settings to portray the browser window as the pages of a book, annotated, scribbled in, and collected. This is the first time I can recall a “hypertext browser piece pretending to be a static text, but using browser affordances effectively” working for me.

Beyond its metafictional interests, Harmonia explores the ways in which certain roles and assumptions can imprison a certain kind of academic woman. Both Elsie and Abby feel bound in similar ways: Elsie by the restrictive gendered expectations placed upon her, and Abby by the casual classism flung at her, an adjunct with a working class accent, by the tenured faculty at Blithedale.* Elsie’s scathing anger leaps off the page: quite literally, in her annotations of her husband’s thoughtless presumptions about her assistance. Lillian appears outside of this dichotomy, and on first read I was inclined to read this as a comment on how generational privilege renders people more comfortable with breaking social boundaries. But the game makes even this point crucial to the series of narrative events: how Lillian gets to her place is dependent on a network of women looking out for each other. For a work that traverses several centuries of history, it feels remarkably relevant to 2017.

* I saw a fair bit of dismissal that Abby would experience such broad prejudice “even as an adjunct” from readers who were not familiar with the general culture of the current American academy. Let me assure my readers that this prejudice is rampant and naked.

harmonia
In addition to the metanarrative elements, which I loved, Abby’s dry wit was also welcome.


2) What Remains of Edith Finch (Steam, PS4)

This is one of the two works that can be most easily categorized as A Game, and yet it defies expectation and categorization. A walking simulator mystery set on Orcas Island, What Remains of Edith Finch guides the player through uncovering the thorny and tangled history of the Finches. It isn’t the individual narrative beats of the family’s stories that felt immediate and crucial to me; rather, it’s the methods of telling them. What Remains of Edith Finch takes the vignette game genre somewhere new; each vignette is delivered in a different style, with different mechanics that highlight the deceased character’s personality. While narratively many of the stories are connected–the tragedies of early deaths affect multiple characters–each vignette stands alone and apart. It’s that sense of isolation, from the mainland and from each other, that underscores the tragedy of the Finches.

I was poised to like this game a lot until I got to Lewis’ vignette. It delves into an incredibly strong fantasy life, and how he used it to pass the time at his repetitive cannery job, but the mechanics of the scene constantly draw the player into the fantasy. Initially, you’re using both hands: one to guide his fantasy knight-avatar walking through an imagined city, and the other to perform the montonous fish-sorting task. As the game grows, the fantasy becomes more vivid and takes over the screen, making the cannery mechanics more difficult to navigate. By the final beat, I couldn’t see another resolution. It’s the most complicit I’ve felt in a narrative all year, and it’s tied for the mechanics that felt most satisfying (more on that later).

And then it turned out I couldn’t shut up about it. I played it in June, I think, and though I haven’t spoken about it as persistently since, it’s lingered with me.

3) Mama Possum


Kevin is a friend of mine, and we’ve worked together on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, but I’ve been following his work since Beneath Floes, a retelling of an Inuit legend in Twine, notable both for its arresting visuals and for having a version in Inuktitut

Mama Possum, originally commissioned for a Pacific Rim-esque series Cassandra Khaw floated about drift compatible older women kicking kaiju ass, has the features I’ve come to think of as Bravemule hallmarks: a strong grounding in place, compassionate looks at imperfect, compelling characters, and a polished harmony of graphics, UI, and text where each element feels inextricable from the larger project.

Mama Possum takes place in the cockpit of the eponymous jaeger, as two sisters stomp their way through the Ozarks to respond to a kaiju sighting. The sisters’ relationship is frayed, but that’s what it means to be drift compatible: you may not like each other every moment, but your bond just works. It’s a meditation on family, intimacy, and sacrifice with one of the most simplified and effective IF interfaces this year.

4) The Shrouded Isle (Steam)

The Shrouded Isle is Kitfox Games’ third released title, a grim and arresting resource management game that puts you in the role of a cult leader preparing your flock for the apocalypse. Keeping all 5 houses happy enough not to rebel, purifying sinners, and ensuring your stats don’t drop below the limit while you choose one villager to sacrifice per season is tricky, especially in the newly released DLC.  Finding and sacrificing the major sinners, referred to by the Cthulhu-like voice that whispers to you by names like the Scholar, the Artist, and the Embezzler, helps keep the population from tipping into anarchy.

I kept coming back to this game over and over in several-hour bursts until I got good enough to reliably win “detective runs” where you unveil all traits. Then the DLC dropped and upended my careful strategies.

The villagers are only vaguely sketched out, which makes bloody sacrifice easier. But the DLC, which comes not only with new mechanics but new quest lines, unsettles this expectation of grimness and death. Sacrifice the Scholar, and the children will wonder what happened to their teacher. Someone can become Rebellious after the death of a friend. The world is strange and ominous and unsettling enough to tempt me with more glimpses, but it’s smart to never overexplain.

The game also has a feature that lets you rename cultists, and assigning your friends (after getting their consent) and revealing horrible traits is tremendously fun and shareable. This is probably the game released in 2017 I’ve spent the most time with.

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Shrouded Isle, source of perpetual procedurally generated owns.


5) Will Not Let Me Go

I tested Will Not Let Me Go several years ago, in what I think was a text-complete but not as graphically polished interface, and have been wondering when others would get to see what I knew even then was an achievement in interactive fiction. (I think I actually even nicely queried Stephen once. Sorry about that.) The answer was, it turned out to be, “when it’s ready”. There are so many pieces of the project that cohere to achieve its effects, and that time spent was well worth it.

I’ve talked before about the text effects of forgetting and why they’re so effective, but these are some of my favorite mechanics all year. They’re very much a way of illustrating the interiority that Fred Strickland is so frustrated at not being able to convey. There’s been a lot written about empathy games and their ineffectiveness, but in this case, as I was stumbling around my house, frustrated, not having made a map, that frustration boiling over rapidly turned to compassion for Fred, fictional or not, fumbling his way through an experience he couldn’t quit out of.

One thing it took a bit to notice was that the backgrounds changed from white to light grey to slightly less light grey to regular grey in non-linear progression, and that the gradation correlated to how long in Fred’s timeline we were. As the disease took over more and more of his neurological functions, the world dimmed accordingly. People and memories and meaning stayed. The narrative persisted. But it was a striking and subtle way to hint to a reader how far his Alzheimer’s had progressed.

When I’ve recommended this game before, I’ve mentioned my role in testing as well as the fact that it deals with issues of dementia, aging, loss, and death. And I don’t encourage people who are in a raw place with those subjects to pick it up. But if you do feel able, I think it’s one of the most moving stories about aging and loss of self, largely due to its very strong regional voice and the use of text changing mechanics.

6) Night in the Woods (Steam, PS4)

Night in the Woods is another game that draws heavily on a sense of place as it unfolds its story through an appealing combination of platforming and other minigame elements. You play as Mae Borowski, back in her small hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college, and trying to settle back into a routine with her best friend Gregg, his boyfriend Angus, and their bandmate Bea. Most of the game is spent unraveling the weird happenings in town, but it’s paced in such a way that Mae has to conform to the work schedules of her friends who stayed behind, who need to earn a living, and who have a much better grasp of the stakes of Mae’s return than she herself seems to. A particular moment on the way back from a party in the Woods stayed with me, where Bea admits her anger at Mae throwing college away and tells her “I’d kick you out of this moving car right now if it meant I could go to college”. It doesn’t feel personal, other than that Mae’s the person who wasted the opportunity; it’s just a genuine, ugly statement that is entirely understandable given what we know of Bea at that point. (Bea does apologize later, but I understand what prompts her to voice this.)

None of the four main characters are entirely sympathetic, and I loved that Night in the Woods was willing to give us a protagonist who is grappling with some real issues, and refuses to offer a quick and easy solution. Dr. Hank prescribes journaling to Mae to deal with some of her more destructive thoughts, and it’s the source of the drawings and thoughts that players see when they press the ESC key throughout the game. But when she’s asked about it, she’s not sure if it works particularly well. Night in the Woods leans into that uncertainty, that sense of struggling and doing one’s best, and commits to showing players some of every character at their lowest and most frightened.

Everyone in this game, from major characters to minor characters to NPCs who seem to only offer flavor text, is deeply embedded within the particular landscape of an old Rust Belt town. Mae’s dad is on a different job after his last one shuttered; the first conversation she has with her mother is about what businesses have closed and which have opened while she’s been away. The new Snack Falcon employs Gregg, who is not a particularly responsible worker, and it’s hard to blame him. There’s a sense of anxiety and desperation even in the presence of the newly opened Ham Panther; when you visit the Fort Lucenne mall with Bea, Mae keeps asking what happened to all the stores that have closed, and Bea repeatedly answers “the internet”. There’s a fatalism there, but also a sense of “what were you expecting?” The answer isn’t going to change the second time or the seventh.

There are moments when the core game loop felt slow to me, but that frustration and discomfort is well placed in this world, which is populated with town citizens worrying about economic downturns and what the future looks like as you porch-jump by them. The dream sequences dragged on a bit long for me, but that might be the fact that I haven’t played a platformer in a while. The rest of the minigames and puzzles made up for the dream sequences, however: especially the fountain in the Fort Lucenne mall and the elevator buzzer puzzle. The game utilizes the interaction key in ways that feel enormously satisfying; Mae has very little ability to affect her world, and where she can, her agency is often limited to what can be done in these minigames, and that feels satisfying both narratively and ludically.

As for the end: I’ve heard that the ending is divisive, but it felt entirely fitting to me.

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Did I mention the dialogue is extremely good?


7) Voyageur 

Voyageur came out at the beginning of 2017, but I don’t want to forget it as I backload this list with titles I played in the last four months of the year. I tested Voyageur, and my first major session was spend on the elliptical; I literally looked up thinking 10 minutes had passed and my workout was over. Since then, Voyageur has been the mobile game I dip into as a meditation, spending spare minutes exploring the procedurally-generated planet descriptions, knowing that this one is mine, and unique, and will never be seen again, and will vanish into the darkness of space once o depart. I will never return. All that exists is the moment, the vivid images, and then the journey pulling me onward.

Voyageur’s PC is a captain of an interstellar ship on a one-way mission to the heart of the galaxy; the ship only has the power for that one direction. So that already sets me with a fairly strong character, an Odysseus figure with nothing left behind. I flit from planet to planet, stocking fuel and gambling that the trade goods I pick up will be more valuable somewhere else. (I think there’s a way to know beyond guesswork, but I like the gamble. Besides, I would be fairly unhappy if the game broadcast that to players: the whole point is that you’re exceptional, that star traders rarely make these journeys, and that information from other planets doesn’t make it back, which is why you get paid for ethnographic lectures planetside.) I note that I am using “I” here where I often default to the apostrophaic you, and that is not an accident. For someone who often feels rootless, who always wants to know what’s over the horizon, I found this a difficult game to put down.

The faction system is also predictably my shit. 5 types shape how each faction considers themselves, and how they relate to space travel, strangers, history. Star believes in idealism, and in incremental progression. This drives Hammer crazy, since they’re ready to smash it up and start again. Dome, meanwhile, thinks Hammer’s proclivity for breaking systems is reckless and not sustainable. Each faction has two others they’re particularly skeptical of. Bruno has written that it’s partially based on Magic’s color-based system of assigning archetypes; I haven’t played much Magic but it’s a really satisfying system I’ll probably also end up adapting at some point.

These principles aren’t declaimed, also: they underpin the procedural generation system, changing what kind of buildings you see, what sort of statues, and a score of other tiny details that go into making each world textually unique. No one stops you and gives you a lecture on what it means to be part of Ladder culture (though you can get into public political debates on Hammer planets). This nebulousness suits your role as traveler passing through, not from any one of these cultures, and also has not prevented my friends and I from classifying characters and ourselves according to alignment. (I’m Star, with a subtype of Chrysalis, if anyone was wondering).

If I had a criticism, it’s that my mobile play style doesn’t lend itself well to my desire to take a deep dive: but fortunately Voyageur is coming to PC in 2018, and I’ll be picking it up for that platform then.

8) Butterfly Soup 

In a year that seemed to drag on joylessly, Butterfly Soup was sweet, charming, funny, and uplifting. It tells a coming of age story about Diya, Akarsha, and Min. It’s such a good portrayal of what it feels like to be a teenager: confused, unformed, frightened, trying to fake it so no one sees. I didn’t always identify with Diya, but when I did, it was striking and poignant. And I loved that this story exists: four Asian girls in Oakland navigating their relationships to sports and gender and sexuality and the future, with each other. It’s a story that says “it’s okay not to have everything together right now, eventually you’re going to come out of that cocoon and still be you”.

From a technical standpoint, it’s really lovely; I especially appreciated how the game breaks up at certain narratively tense moments to let you explore the area, trading in narrative velocity for confusion and a building sense of a character’s worry and confusion. It’s an exchange that feels enormously well earned: Akarsha’s outburst in the gym is poignant, but it came at the end of wandering about in frustration, and without that exploration, it wouldn’t have had the space to resonate for me.

Butterfly Soup is hilarious, thoughtful, kind to its protagonists and its readers, and well-structured. There are so many people for whom this work is going to feel like relief, the expression of something they haven’t known how to say to themselves. I’m so glad it exists.

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Real, Akarsha.


9) 17776 

What can I even say about 17776? It defies description. If I told you I was including an interactive piece about American football published on sbnation, some of you might wonder if you were still following the same talkative enthusiastic narrative designer you have come across at one of my talks or a conference or on twitter. Hear me out.

17776 is a piece about why we play. It’s about what we get from games, and rules, and our urge to twist them and run up against them till they break and we need new rules. It’s about what it means to be human, and what’s left when death and loss are taken out of the equation, and about what we would do with infinite time. It’s got a lot of great jokes.

I do not wear branded t-shirts, as a rule, and I thought very VERY seriously about getting myself a 17776 shirt, just to walk down the street wearing it saying, “I love this. I love this. Do you? Do you understand my anxieties about connection and its impossibilities, and do you feel the need to try anyway?”

17776
hi again, stranger.


10) Known Unknowns

Known Unknowns, an episodic CYOA with witches, raccoon ghosts, and a very very good best friend, might be one of the longest interactives written in Twine. (I refuse to do math on the last day of the year.) I’ve been following it and testing builds since Brendan Patrick Hennessy debuted it, and the finale is a wonderful culmination to the whole saga. You play as Nadia Nazari, who’s trying to navigate being EIC of the school paper and investigating some strange happenings while dealing with an old friend being back at school, and all the complicated situations these events dredge up. The presentation is really lovely: flashback scenes are presented very sparsely, while present-day moments feature black-and-white character profiles of the people who are in the scene. (And those character profiles are pretty fantastic, and predictably full of great jokes: Nadia gets “Reporting Style: Plucky”; Kaz, her best friend, has “Interests: Weed”, and Summer, the old best friend, has “Favourite Emotion: Panic”.)

Known Unknowns is especially strong in its characters and dialogue, the latter of which is presented in a script format and sounds like how actual people would talk to each other. It’s funny, sweet, and engrossing; I kept replaying from the beginning each time a new chapter came out not because I needed to ground myself in the plot again but because I wanted to viscerally feel as annoyed, frustrated, ecstatic, etc. at all of the characters surrounding Nadia as I had on the first playthrough. Replaying one of the longest Twine games ever multiple times so I could see all of the text is a pretty strong endorsement, I think.

 

Disclaimer: I am friends with Kevin Snow, Brendan Patrick Hennessy and Bruno Dias; I tested Voyageur, Will Not Let Me Go, and Known Unknowns; Liza Daly and Stephen Granade are Patreon supporters; interactive fiction is a very small scene.

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