2018’s iteration of the Interactive Fiction Competition provides an amount of entries that may feel daunting to even dedicated text-game enthusiasts. I’m providing a list of experiences I found interesting, fun, worthwhile. Some of these might not be the most polished we’ve seen in IF Comp, but all had something that made me take notice. You can find all the games here, and vote (provided you’ve played 5 or more).
Six Ages is a strategy simulation narrative game out for iOS from the makers of King of Dragon Pass. For people who have played that game, it feels somewhere between a remake and an extension; it’s firmly within that world, mythologically and systemically. As a result, it’s difficult to talk about Six Ages without placing it in conversation with its predecessor.
Not all player choices have to have mechanical effects. It’s less interesting to establish this point (and constantly re-defend it) than it is to say: given that reflective choice is a legitimate technique, it can be used well or badly. Some reflective choice is astonishingly effective, and some is worse than useless. The tools we use to interrogate mechanical choices won’t necessarily be very helpful in distinguishing between the two. What goes into a strong reflective choice?
(or, “should have been two dogs”)
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a bleak American folk tale of a narrative game about wandering the country and trading stories. If you’ve heard about the project, you know that one of the features that sets it apart is the sheer number of writers who lent their diverse talents and voices to compose a game about America that speaks of and to many threads and cultures and backgrounds. There were 24 writers in all, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Several people have already written excellent pieces on what writing for this game was like; Laura’s excellent postmortem especially covers the overall process of making the game. I didn’t write any of the major 16 characters you speak to, and I only wrote a proportionately small handful of stories, so this is only about my process in my own small corner. And no, I can’t tell you how we got Sting.
I wasn’t sure initially if I would submit to Manifesto Jam: I liked the idea, but I am not much of a manifesto writer. My work tends to be crowded with hedges and footnotes, reflective choices and spaces that aren’t always resolved. But that, in the end, is why I wrote what I did: I wanted to imagine a manifesto that was not didactic, that did not draw hard lines (between what is and isn’t a ‘lacunic interactive’; what is and isn’t an ‘interactive’ at all) and most of all could speak to much of my work without having to confine all of my work–both current and present. Hence, On Lacuna came to be. I want to elaborate here on some of my reasoning behind the points I chose to include, and how they’re reflected in interactives I make or enjoy.
January was–and I wince at the past tense, as I barely noticed the last two days of the month passing–a rather fractured month. I spent it caught between a handful of larger obligations and projects, and thus didn’t have as much time to work on one overarching interactive narrative exploration as I’d wished. Instead, I bring a handful of updates and pieces of interest.
As a bit of a joke that suddenly became a fun project, I published the Void Catalog. (Currently, the only working password is “Boethius”; it’s deliberately meant to be difficult to access outside of word-of-mouth and arcane documentation on twitter, blogs, etc., as I wanted to convey the sense of having to do some digging to get at what one wants.) It only exists as an experimental fragment right now, but I’ve long conceived of an interactive fiction piece that was a living library, unfolding slowly over a period of time. I’ve never wanted to commit to monthly short projects on Patreon, because that doesn’t work with my creative model, but in this specific case, the idea sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go. (The Catalog itself is called a variety of different things, depending on the position of the moon and the state of your heart when you access it.) It’s the sort of project I see adding to occasionally, when the inclination strikes and I have the free time to do it.
A lot of intriguing work was released this month that I haven’t yet had the time to dig into. In particular, “if not us” appears to be a fascinating experiment with perspective, and Narthex is a Global Game Jam 2018 project by storytellers whose work I have enjoyed in the past. (Some of the Narthex team also worked on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.) And GENDERWRECKED, a visual novel about romance, gender, and feelings, is out! All three of these are sitting on my desktop, unopened, while I scowl at my to-do list.
Finally, I’ve been catching up on some of sub-Q’s most recently published stories, and wanted to write a short synopsis of one I found particularly compelling:
Natalia Theodoridou’s All Those Parties We Didn’t Cry At, published at sub-Q, is a speculative fiction story about a universe in which crying suddenly becomes impossible. The narrative flow is broken by interludes where the story asks readers to perform an action of stymied intimacy, weaving the fiction and the reader’s experience together by drawing on physicalized sensations brought on by the text’s prompts but not necessarily connected to the narrative thread of the story. In particular, what Theodoridou does with sound and place and visualization–asking players to listen, to go to a public place, and to visualize–draws on eroding the boundary between digital and physical, player and player character. All Those Parties We Didn’t Cry At plays at what it means to ‘interact’ in an interactive narrative, and seeks to evoke a heightened awareness of space and place while engaging with a relatively linear story and a player’s own memories, the very nature of which are nonlinear.
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. Continue reading “Top 10 Interactive Experiences of 2017”