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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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.

IF Comp 2016 Reviews: Screw You, Bear Dad

“Screw You, Bear Dad” was the first game I played this year, largely because I had seen its cover art on the hashtag for a couple of days, and also, come on, a bear protagonist. I’m not made of stone.

The game does indeed feature a bear PC, though it also dedicates time to other characters (more on that later). It opens as you’re falling through a skylight–bulletproof but not bearproof, the first of many moments to make me smile–into a research facility, and accidentally crushing a human beneath you. You are then offered the chance to back away, or to wear the unfortunate person’s face as a disguise. Reader, I chose the skin mask.

The game then splits your time exploring the facility, seeing the bear through the perspective of the human characters, one of whom works in human resources and is arguably having the worst day of her career (unfortunately, no one makes a joke about the disguise as an aspect of human resources), and flashbacks which are later explained in exposition. The flashbacks for me are the strongest part, with a strong core story about the tension between wanting to find your own way and the weight of expectations.

The pacing for me is the biggest issue. It starts off with a bunch of Dad Jokes and a paced vignette where text appears slowly, controlling the pace of conversation. This is a technique that’s hard to do well, and it requires tight control of the narrative up to and past that point. For me, it only works if there’s little slack in the rest of the story, to serve as a contrast. And in “Screw You, Bear Dad”, there were parts which I felt went on too long, or were otherwise meandering: particularly in the facility.

The facility bit is probably the weakest part of the story, which is a shame because I do like Carla, and Bailey’s puns are great. (The pacing on the puns–click to have a character try to stop them, fail to hold back the tide–did work well for me. And the way profanity is strategically delayed until a suitably dramatic moment is a nice light touch.) But I kept wanting to get back to Bear Dad and his Bear Child. I imagine the purpose of switching to the humans’ perspective is to offer the idea that no one is beyond humanizing or impossible to feel empathy for. And that’s an idea I am very strongly here for, but in practice, it muddies the narrative and drags out the action. A shorter piece would have given those flashback pauses more emotional weight.

The author does a lot of work with link effects in this game: delays, shaking, disappearing and reappearing entirely. These elements  have variable success: I liked the effect of the dramatic pauses, but words that disappear sporadically make me feel like I have to time my click right. That’s fine and maybe even desirable in a game about urgency or precision, but here it doesn’t work for me.

What I expected from the opening was a staccato, surreal, funny beardungsroman, and I did get that in places. And I think the multiple perspectives does support my reading of the game as being primarily about realizing life has multiple surprising and frightening possibilities (anywhere from “I can make my own life” to “a bear crashed into my facility and everything is broken now”) and that the best response to this is empathy. But there’s too much slack in the overall structure and in the pacing choices for me to say that it’s a solidly coherent work. But it’s sweet, and it’s heartfelt, and it’s beary funny. Recommended.

IF Comp 2016: My Review Guidelines

It’s IF Comp season, which means a whole lot of games are about to be released. I said I’d try to review some of the games, which I’ll be doing on this blog, and so this is a general introduction about what to expect from my reviews and reviewing process. This is the first year without an author muzzle rule, and Sam Kabo Ashwell put up some very useful guidelines about best practices for authors. Instead of going into it myself, I’m going to link to him.

A couple of potentially-useful caveats about my own reviewing:

I am not going to get to everything. I’m incredibly busy with a couple of commercial projects on top of my day job, and if the comp gets as many entries as it did last year, I simply won’t have time to review every game. I’ll be using a randomly ordered list, but I’ll also be jumping around in that if I only have time for a short game or something catches my eye. Also, I’m much more likely to review long, traditional parser games if they have a walkthrough: it helps me save time if I get stuck on a puzzle, so I have more time to spend on the structure of a game and review more works.

I’m not writing reviews for the benefit of the author. It’s entirely possible authors will get some useful feedback out of it, but the purpose of my reviews is to record my experience and to offer that to other readers as a possible guide. I’m aiming for what worked, and what didn’t work, for me; what I found interesting or ambitious or moving or worth commenting on, and my experiences (all experiences, in fact) are subjective.

Given that, I’m not using numerical scores; I may or may not explicitly recommend games. If I do, it’s possible that there will be a reason, e.g. “recommended if you like…” or “not recommended for…”, but this may not occur in all cases. (Note: this section might be updated as I progress through reviews and my process becomes more regimented.)

I am reviewing a piece of IF, not that piece’s author. If I’m frustrated or bored by a game, or I criticize an aspect of it, that is absolutely not a comment on the author’s worth as a person. I know this can be hard; I know we all, myself included, have a tendency to get attached to our work. Creative success or failure does not correlate to the quality of your personhood or your worth as a person.