Initial Impressions of IFComp 2017

IFComp is a crowded field this year. With nearly 80 entries (some, if I recall, withdrawn at time of this posting) it’s hard to sort through. I’ve curated a list of the interactives I’ve most enjoyed so far, with a couple words on what makes them innovative or enjoyable to me. I might dig deeper into some of these mechanics at a later date, but for now I think it’s most useful to focus broadly rather than narrowly before comp ends. A reminder: you can rate interactives as long as you’ve played more than 5!

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Action and Interaction in Aether Interactive’s Localhost

This piece contains spoilers for Localhost and will make the most sense if you’ve played the interactive at least once; it can be purchased here.

When Sophia Park and her collaborators released Localhost in August, itch.io praised the piece, saying “modern Twine is defined by Sophia Park and [her production company] Aether Interactive.” Park’s work is at the forefront of a reinvigoration of Twine’s possibilities. Together with work like Porpentine’s episodically-released Sticky Zeitgeist and furkle’s IF SPY INTRIGUE, which won IF Comp 2015’s Golden Banana Award for the most polarizing piece, Localhost and Park’s other interactives are beginning to form what I’ve (rather flippantly) been thinking of as New Twine.

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Constraint, Coherence, and the Limited Parser

I’ve spoken before about matching interactive stories to narrative platforms, and briefly mentioned experiments with limited parsers. That talk was about how to use a system’s built-in strengths to make your narrative stronger: Twine’s sense of containment, Texture’s high-ask tactile affordances, Inform’s exploration via cardinal directions and world modeling. But limited parser pieces do the opposite: they press against the constraints of parser games, and by doing so, allow creators to tell stories about the frustrations of agency.

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Digital Labor: A Reading List

I’ve been wanting to dive into questions of how labor intersects with the digital realm for a while, and have had a couple conversations with friends, but the question we kept coming up against was of how to get a sense of the field. My current research doesn’t really intersect with my interests in this sphere, so I reached out on Twitter to ask about resources.

The following list is compiled from that conversation with Cameron Kunzelman, Austin Walker, and Daniel Joseph. Daniel’s portion is directly copied from a document he’s given me permission to share; the latter half is my curation of other recommendations, with links to online versions where possible. (I’m very interested in how work on digital labor gets distributed and who it’s accessible to, but that’s another blog post.) Daniel’s recommendation is to start with Terranova on free labor, Postigo on Youtube, and Küchlich on playbour. (For those who are interested in conversations I’ve had about streaming, the last will probably be of interest.) Both Metagaming and Games of Empire also seem relevant my interests, as does the Burawoy, but that last might be fairly niche and depends on you buying Bourdieu on habitus. (I do.)

Anyway, here’s the list; I make no promises about my ability to update it in the future as I’ve got some deadlines coming up, but I would like to continue to expand it as I read further.

Stranger Manor: A Social Escape Room Game

Stranger Manor was a Stranger Things-themed escape room game which I made for Haunted Manor 2016. Haunted Manor is an exclusive, ticketed Halloween event in Los Angeles that a host of creative individuals puts on yearly; this time, the property was transformed into the Byers’ house (the interior and bars) and the Upside Down (the grounds and dance floor). 

 

We capped the guest list at 200 to prevent crowding and allow for flow throughout the evening. Since going to a party is different than choosing to attend an escape room, and selects for different people, my job was to create a game that wouldn’t alienate casual players and which didn’t rely on knowing the tropes and history of puzzle hunts.

The design goals of Stranger Manor were several:

  • create a clues-based puzzle game in which guests could wander around the house and grounds;
  • not disrupt the general flow of party activities, including acquiring drinks, waiting for bathrooms, dancing, etc.;
  • allow interested players to solve as much or as little as they’d like and shift their priorities as new events and people came up;
  • get people moving around the lot and exploring the amazing build; have them share secrets and ideas.

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IF Comp 2016 Reviews: The Queen’s Menagerie, Cinnamon Tea, Ariadne in Aeaea

The Queen’s Menagerie:

One of the longer Texture pieces I’ve seen, The Queen’s Menagerie follows the keeper of the titular menagerie through its labyrinthine halls. Everything here is about display, and power, and monstrosity: the keeper does his job, and does it well, for the Queen’s table scraps, despite the gravity of his tasks and the shortened lifespan it will inevitably mean. The Queen, for her part, keeps the animals as a display of power for visiting diplomats, and when not being used, they are kept confined in darkness. It’s a pretty horrific premise, and Groover characteristically leans into the intersections of this horror, the human cost. (The moment with the dragon is particularly effective because of the limited information you receive.) Third person works well here, establishing a voyeuristic distance between reader and keeper that’s complicated by Texture’s format of dragging. The platform requires slightly more input than a hyperlink, but less so than even a limited parser, and so seems particularly suited to work that deals with themes of implication, constraint, and guilt. Recommended.

Cinnamon Tea: 

A fairly short Twine piece on the Sorting Hat formula, where your early choices lock you into a path before you know the consequences of your action. I’ve seen that work well, particularly in places where “meddling in forces beyond your ken” is a theme (Magical Makeover comes to mind). But the game doesn’t do enough to signal the consequences of your choices, or offer me enough of a payoff. The last tea choice does have what I read as an ultimately hopeful (and well-written) dream sequence. But on the whole, I’d have liked better signaling; as this work stands, it feels slight. I’m afraid I can’t personally recommend it, but I think there are some readers it would work for.

Ariadne in Aeaea: 

(Note: my historical pedant hat will remain firmly off for the duration of the review.) A mid-length puzzly parser game, Ariadne in Aeaea appears to take some of the feedback the author’s previous game received to heart. Puzzles are largely clear, though I ran into one major question after speaking to my aunt. (This is definitely a game where I tried to get the PC to disrobe in several unhelpful locations, and the protagonist’s frustrated internal monologue was a nice counterpoint.) Both the walk through and the in-game hint system were useful (though there was one point toward the end where the hint system gave me the previous, solved puzzle’s hint).

Leaving my personal baggage with regard to some of these characterizations firmly at the door, I liked the protagonist as she was written, and felt that this reading of the archaic Mediterranean, with Ariadne subject to the pressures of familial social, and ultimately political expectation, was effective at making use of the parser’s confines. (Lately I find myself preferring games where even where the standard verbs are available, the narrative makes me want to press forward toward my stated goal rather than try the standard Inform library. Bronze, Hoist Sail For the Heliopause and Home, and Superluminal Vagrant Twin, to name a few canonical and contemporary examples.) Ariadne has a strong sense of forward momentum, of wanting to find out the next big secret, and–other than the puzzle in the middle–was fairly good at delivering on that momentum. Recommended.

Poetry for Mortality, or Imposed Obsolescence

So I’ve been watching Westworld, and perhaps more to the point, watching what narrative designers of my acquaintance think of Westworld. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about AI (both practically speaking as well as how AI functions in fictional narratives), and especially neural networks, and poetry’s position in the show–as something not just learned but processed, assimilated, and made into a complex reference system–seems apt. (Disclaimer: I am not an AI researcher and thus will gleefully use the wrong words to refer to these android characters throughout this post.)

I got into a conversation about wanting to take all of the decommissioned robots to a park and read gentle poetry on Twitter, which led to thinking about what specifically I’d want to give them. There’s a really interesting overlap between human concerns about mortality and robots which are built with either planned or possible obsolescence in mind; I’m thinking immediately of Bentley A. Reese’s fantastic “Suicide Bots” in Shimmer, which is one of my favorite stories this year. And so what follows is a list of poetry I think might be particularly healing or meaningful for droids which have been considered undesirable.

  1. John Donne, Holy Sonnet #1

I was so pleased when the glitchy robot professor/dad/whatever other roles I’m forgetting started quoting Donne, because Donne’s obsession with free will and mortality is incredibly salient here. “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?” begins Holy Sonnet #1, and thus launches into a meditation on aging, mortality, and what can potentially be preserved–for Donne, through salvation; for robots, through saving. “Repair me now, for mine end doth haste” is a line particularly likely to win fans among the decommissioned crowd.

2. G.M. Hopkins, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.”

Jacob Garbe mentioned this one, but this is absolutely the Hopkins I’d have included if I’d have chosen. Melancholy, with a fixation on the question if the grief of living can be transcended, Hopkins’ poetry carves out a hollow space for grappling with a world where its creator will not intervene to relieve suffering. (All right, Hopkins still believes in God, but his work has more to do with asserting that faith in the face of trials than singing praises.) This one in particular speaks to the anxieties of abandonment and the universality of oblivion: “all / life death does end and each day dies / with sleep”.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)

This might seem like an odd choice–Millay has a lot of work about aging, death, and loss, but this one is an old favorite, and dovetails neatly with the idea of memory and repeatedly-run subroutines. Favorite lines: “the rain / is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh / upon the glass and listen for reply” and “Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, / nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, / yet knows its boughs more silent than before”.

4. Eavan Boland, “Quarantine

Okay, bear with me on this one. Yes, it’s about mortality, so it plausibly counts, but it’s more specifically directed at our glitchy professor, whose directive overrode the rest of his programming to create emergent behavior. This stark paean to pragmatic love stands, in my reading, as a parallel to the sacrifice Abernathy makes to keep Dolores safe, to Thandie Newton’s character’s protection of one of her girls, to Dolores running to her sweetheart : the “merciless inventory” of “what they suffered. How they lived”. Yeah, I’m sad about robots, what of it?

5. A. E. Housman, “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble (A Shropshire Lad 31)

Oh, Housman. My heart aches for him, caught between desire (if perhaps overwrought) and duty. This poem in particular deals with landscape and linkages, a world which retains the imprint and feelings of the people who have lived and died and vanished on it, even if only in the common behaviors they perform. And what’s more Westworld than that?

(Honorable mentions: Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas“, Ruth Baumann, “Headless Ghazal“, probably everything we still have of Sappho.)