Analyzing the four nominees for this year’s Best Setting XYZZY, attempting to focus on just this one aspect of four very different games (set in disparate worlds using varied approaches) has prompted some intriguing internal reflection on what makes for a rich setting in interactive fiction. I had some beliefs I didn’t even realize I had. It is abundantly clear why each of these pieces was nominated—every work in this category demonstrates an author’s loving attention to world building and experiential game play. While the approaches differ considerably, each merits the nomination they received in their own way.
Changes, by David Given
David Given’s Changes feels like a world that’s living and connected—an ecosystem implemented beyond anything I’ve seen elsewhere in interactive fiction. Quite appropriate, given that ecology is central to the plot and puzzle dynamic. Unfortunately, there are a few aspects of Changes that substantially interfere with one’s enjoyment of this extraordinarily well-implemented world. While I recognize that this review is meant to center on setting, I find it necessary to address these issues, as they are an impediment to fully enjoying and appreciating the stage that’s been set for the player.
A couple of these issues relate to the story’s puzzles (either directly or indirectly). The game’s world consists of a series of outdoor locations that the player must negotiate numerous times for various reasons. Early on, the player spends a significant period of time being pursued as prey. Speaking from my experience, I spent much of my time focused on escape rather than the scenery through which I was being chased. I suppose it could be argued that this unpleasant sense of urgency and fear served to intensify the setting and the player’s place within it. As it was, I found it difficult to truly get into the game, and I honestly would not have pushed on to explore more of the world and finish Changes were it not for the fact that I’d agreed to write this review. While the pursuit puzzle is fairly necessary to the plot, I feel it could still have been present without ruining the experience, given a bit of nuance and better balance.
As the game progresses, the world begins to change in response to actions that have been taken by the player. This is a wonderful touch that makes the place seem even more real. Unfortunately, because the player has been back and forth over the same well-worn paths so many times, it’s surprisingly easy to miss what you’ve done to irrevocably impact the world. I’d visited the same locations over and over and over and over again, and at that point I found myself barely reading the descriptions anymore—even substantial changes were very nearly missed because of this.
The narrative tone utilized in Changes comes in two flavors. One voice aids in immersing the player in the world, while the other serves to separate the player from it. When the player character is reacting to something unexpected, sharing his or her emotions and reactions, it’s easier to feel connected to the planet we’re on. However, the bulk of the game consists of observations made by the player in a more removed manner, using a tone that will most certainly appeal to a specific subset of armchair nature enthusiasts. When reading the text I found that my internal voice sounded a lot like David Attenborough, whispering to me… we see the beavers, diligently working on their dam; though unlike Earth beavers, these have not yet learned the value of packing the cracks with mud; perhaps given some millenia of natural selection and chance they will happen upon this skill… I kept expecting the hungry fox to steal a baby beaver from an unsuspecting mother, as seems to always happen in these shows, somewhere in between the near-miss of the beaver almost killed during the felling of a tree and the joyful time when the rains come, replenishing the vital lifeblood of the landscape. The reason I’m less keen on this narrative style for a natural setting in interactive fiction, even one so well crafted as the one we see in Changes, is that it implies a disconnect from the system. One is an observer rather than a particpant, and I suspect that’s quite the opposite of the effect Given is hoping for here.
These critiques aside, it’s clear that Changes was a game worthy of nomination for Best Setting and a strong contender for taking the XYZZY. The player has the opportunity to explore the world from multiple perspectives, each different. Animals react to the player—and to each other—sometimes in unanticipated ways. There’s a lot here that’s real and dynamic and varied. About the only thing that could have made it more real would have been the implementation of weather. If one is able to take the setting, somehow pluck it out of the game and weigh it on its own merits, it’s a great example of what’s possible and what we should be doing more of in interactive fictions set in natural environments. Of course, setting is but one aspect to the ecology of what makes a complete game.
Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short
Emily Short’s latest game is filled with possibilities and puzzles, and this is where much of the focus has been in conversations surrounding Counterfeit Monkey. It’s easy to understand why, given the novelty of play and the obvious challenge (even for a coder of Short’s prowess) of coding such a game mechanic, giving it so many variables and approaches, then bravely letting the player loose in a substantial world filled with countless objects to explore in a truly new way. It’s almost easy to lose site of the setting altogether, so entrancing is the gameplay, but this says far more for the plot than one might think.
Consider the puzzliest of puzzle games that you’ve played, text-based or otherwise, and ask yourself how many of those games have a setting that blends flawlessly with the core mechanic, rather than feeling like a mere contrivance. Many puzzle-heavy games with a central schtick seem to come part and parcel with a flimsy plot and tangential setting that feel like mechanisms to prop up the Cool Idea, the real reason you’re here. Maybe it’s because Counterfeit Monkey is an Emily Short game, but I feel inclined to use a culinary analogy: most of the time, such games are not unlike the meal of a new cook who’s just mastered a fantastic recipe for a side dish; you invite your friends to supper with the desire to really show off your new garlic mashed potatoes, but you know you can’t just serve mashed potatoes and call it a meal, so you toss in some over crisp veal and limp broccoli to round out the repast.
Not so here.
It seems obvious, that in a world where you can add or remove letters from the names of objects, smack them with a homonym paddle, or zap a phrase into an anagram of itself, that there’d be substantial consequences: it would deeply affect people’s lives, the economy, politics, everyone’s world view… all manner of things. But the reality is that most games (heck, even many static fictions) that are fortunate enough to latch onto something truly original are so excited to share the novelty with you that they fall short or completely fail to round out the rest of the world. Not only does Counterfeit Monkey fail to fall into this trap, it avoids it so adeptly that you may not even notice. And to have done anything less or been any more obvious would have been less successful: Short hits the sweet spot, yet again.
howling dogs, by Porpentine
I was very pleasantly surprised with this one.
If one thinks of strong setting in interactive fiction as a world which is deeply implemented for player character interaction, this would fall far short of the mark in a technical sense. And yet, through the eloquence of Porpentine’s succinct yet evocative writing, the player is immersed in what (according to some) is a relatively static medium.
Of all the nominees for Best Setting, I found myself the most deeply affected by the world of howling dogs: the stark contrast between worlds real and contrived, the multiple existences which felt real despite their obvious existence in virtual reality, the questions asked and left unanswered, the surprising emotion born of the unexpected consequences of decisions I’d made.
Though it’s been debated in reviews elsewhere, I felt the hypertext nature of this piece was an excellent choice that actually lent strength to the setting. I soon grew tired of the click-click-click required to eat and drink and shower … but then, particularly as time wore on and that click-click-click grew more tiresome, I found that this mundane pattern served to strengthen the feeling of going through the motions, day by day, and made the escapes from the routine that much more of a departure. I found my burdens—my actual, real-world burdens—lift when in the shower. I found myself wanting a real-life sanity room (surely such things exist!). And though it took some practice, I got better (especially in subsequent playthroughs) at not just stepping out of my world when in the VR realm, but stepping out of myself. All this interspersed with plodding through a stark, imprisoned reality, a cage both physical and emotional, real and also imagined.
howling dogs orchestrates interactivity through real-world (i.e. at your keyboard) actions blended against imagination. The action isn’t on the screen, it’s at your fingertips and in your head, artfully accomplished in the well-placed links and sparse yet luminous words Porpentine employs. A masterful work, impressively crafted in a very short period of time.
Zero Summer, by Gordon Levine, Tucker Nelson, and Becca Noe
There are elements to Zero Summer‘s user interface that are (at least to me) a bit jarring and distracting. The click-click-click of the cards, for instance. Or the not-being-sure what a card will mean before you click on it, coupled with the ability (after having seen the card) to either pretend you never read it in the first place or to acknowledge but ignore the card once you know what it says, thus allowing you to taste test but not always consume experiences (wouldn’t that be convenient in real life!). While there’s this constant shifting of focus and the option of visiting various locations and people, it all feels a bit like the illusion of choice in what’s actually a linear world, and time passes far more slowly than seems reasonable.
But I’m here to discuss setting—and setting happens to be one of the ways in which Zero Summer truly shines. For a game that’s often described as gritty, there’s polish here. Gritty, grimey, post-apocalyptic polish, but ample polish nonetheless.
The game’s authors, particularly when new areas are introduced, spend more time than seems strictly necessary describing details of the world that don’t seem tremendously important beyond conveying a feeling to the player. As is the case in many but not all well-crafted storyworlds, this has the effect of making the setting a character in the piece. And because we get a better initial feel for the setting than we do for any of the actual characters or for ourself, this is a very welcome thing; Amarillo of the year 2026 quickly became the one thing that felt reassuringly familiar to me, even when things were slowly revealed to be something different than they at first appeared to be.
It’s often hard to separate setting from writing, and there’s been quite a bit of focus on the writing in Zero Summer, about how it’s bigger than Texas. The authors did this intentionally, have their reasons for doing so, and I suspect it’s the sort of writing that will often evoke reactions at both ends of the spectrum—deep admiration or queasy aversion—without too many opinions in between. But it feels oddly easy to separate their approach to writing from their approach to setting, just as it feels surprisingly easy to separate these things from other aspects of the game: character development, for instance, or plot advancement. In a single paragraph you might feel either enriched or assaulted by the use of so many adjectives, but while you were focusing on that you were also unwittingly introduced to a dozen layers of setting in just half a dozen words: where the player is in this moment, what he’s touching, the sensation of touching it, what the weather’s doing, how it makes the character feel to exist in this climate, the time of day, qualities of light and shadow, a hint of what the character knows about the world, suspicion that there’s so much more the character doesn’t know, what he can see from where he sits, how all of what he sees seems tiny compared to the vast sky above him, how the town seems bustling and full of people and opportunities to connect while at the same time feeling isolated from the rest of the world both figuratively and literally…
…and those are merely the semi-obvious things you’ve been shown in just one small paragraph out of many such paragraphs in this still-evolving game.