Robb Sherwin on Best Writing 2012

Robb Sherwin writes on Dinner Bell, Bee, Eurydice and howling dogs.

Dinner Bell, by Jenni Polodna

It is difficult for me to get into text adventures that overwhelm me with objects and options from the beginning. I need a few rooms to ease into before I get going. Every IF game I play is the equivalent of taking up jogging again after a month or two of all-nite buffet dining. I like it when I can just go west a few times from the outset seeing objects that I am not expected to ever really obtain, like the moon, the sun and a woman’s hand in marriage. At the beginning of Dinner Bell by Jenni Polodna, we see that there are seven drawers in the first room that are probably filled with things, things that I knew I would need to manipulate, examine and put someplace.

I’m down to about two empty mental registers in my brain for text games – three in this case because I think the player character was genderless. However, I really like that the game knows that you’re going to be doing a lot of >opening and >looking and made it rewarding to do so with extremely funny lines. In this game, Jenni Polodna does a thing where she is able to construct a hilarious sentence that doesn’t give me more to worry about or keep track of. I love that! This made playing it a pleasant experience instead of making me want to order, on-line, some whiteboard paint for my office’s walls to keep notes upon, which I can’t do.

In Dinner Bell, you are the subject of a behavioral experiment. (The scientific field of which gets a very funny apology in the credits. If even your credits are funny, you should get XYZZY consideration.) That said, the first thing I did was attempt to remove the collar. Since this is a game about behavior psychology, I was worried that I would become a statistic if the trick was that you could remove the collar all along. I wasn’t genuinely worried about my moves being uploaded since I wasn’t playing through Parchment and I have my HOSTS file set to redirect all my requests to I still didn’t want the collar on, though. Here is what happened when I tried to remove it:

Dr. Beagle sees you trying to remove your collar and hits you with maximum voltage. Boy, does that hurt! You flop around for a few minutes like a fish who has just been cured of any psychological ailments popular in the 1950s, such as homosexuality or feminism.

Dr. Beagle uses the trigger to your shock collar to scratch behind his ear. You cringe.

Hahah! The first part really is great writing; clever and doing that thing I like where it takes an unprovoked shot at people who aren’t around to defend themselves. I wish every game did that. The second part made me laugh out loud. I haven’t laughed out loud in a video game in a long, long time. Most of my experiences with games made in the same year as Dinner Bell involve waiting for the opening logo and splash screens to stop, while taking my own blood pressure. This 2012 game was actually fun, not trying to give me hypertension. I checked to ensure that Jenni hadn’t disabled save-anywhere.

The best games teach you something about yourself, and I learned that the entire world doesn’t necessarily use the word “pie” for both dessert and pepperoni pies, whoops:

get the pies
What the pies? What are you even talking about?

>get the pizza pie
I only understood you as far as wanting to get the pizza.

Oh, no! My pedestrian upbringing!

I am going to state the very best part of this game because there weren’t any downsides: she never lets up. At no point in this game did I feel the energy level drop. This never happens. This is an intense experience with amusing things at the end that I could go back and try. A fella like myself, well, I don’t finish many games so I never get to see the AMUSING option these days unless Jon Blask chooses to implement it. I even felt clever playing a game for the first time in forever because I solved a puzzle on my own (it was the puzzle that involved one item amongst many identical ones, but it’s soooo good I don’t want to spoil it).

Anyway, when I come up with (what I think is) a good line for a text adventure, I get to have it slush around in my head all day until I get home and put it in the game I am working on. Then I compile, view it in-game and correct the inevitable punctuation typo(s). I check it into revision control… and then sit on it for three years. Oh, and then I have to make sure I don’t use it in a blog post or tell it to someone so the game’s jokes are fresh when it’s done. This is an insane way to spend one’s time, I… I know that by now.

But God, it takes a certain level of comedic audacity to sit on funny lines until the game is complete, tested and release, and I applaud this game for doing that. It is filled to bursting with humor. It must have been tortuous to write this game and sit on it until everyone else in the TMBG Comp was finished and the reviews came about.

(I don’t know anything about They Might Be Giants, other than the fact that one of them sounds exactly like Willie Nelson. I played this game and wrote this review while listening to dubstep, which is why I didn’t write a single sentence about the qualities of music genres or music in general except for this one at the end that Sam might cut. Not knowing about the song didn’t impact my ability to enjoy the game.)

Bee, by Emily Short

I read an article about the Hobbit, novel version, recently. All right, it was on Jimbo’s Big Bag of On-line Trivia. The article said that the novel contained lots of descriptions of Bilbo’s larder in the Shire, because children would be interested in the descriptions of all the food. I was so impressed with that insight that when I edited the article to just contain a picture of a giant spider for future arachnophobists, I left that part in. I was reminded of the power of food playing Bee. Food that I would only eat if having lunch over a job interview to my chagrin popped up – pea soup, brown bread (sorry, CANNED brown bread!) — lentils everywhere, and rice with red beans which isn’t that great unless prepared by an incomprehensible Cajun.

Food, though, is just one of the things used to paint the picture of the family that you are a part of. This family was rather different from my own and I enjoyed seeing the world from their perspectives. There is a lovely spot in the game where the family is putting labels on jars of preserves. Putting aside, for a second, the concept of fruit being in the house, the interplay in the family’s craft and perfectionism when it came to a can labels was nothing along the lines of what I had growing up. Bee successfully creates a virtual world to experience. For me, that is what IF is all about. A journey into such a different world is what I love about interactive fiction; I mean, I can accumulate demerits from Ensign Blather with the best of them, but this world was in many ways richer.

I’d never played a Varytale before, so I wasn’t 100% up on the platform shortcuts or what was expected of me. When I got into my first competition Bee eliminated choices that my character wouldn’t possibly say, I suspect because my spelling attribute was high. So I had four choices for “cacophony,” but some were ghosted. Also, I never use words that have “k”s in them and I wasn’t about to start now. (That said, if some future programmer for the Varytale software adds the red squiggle pattern under misspelled words in the presented text, they are going to screw this story up. Thus expect this to be the first thing implemented should Varytale be acquired by Games for Windows Live.)

A lot of choices are cyclical, as the months in Bee progress, so there’s lots to do that does not involve vocabulary words. Each one was a treat, as I had no idea what was going to happen when I selected one (though none disrupted my expectations more then when I chose the one called Advent).

One of the specific bits of writing that resonated with me was a line about gardening, a distraction I sort of loathe:

You work in stripes, listening to past spelling bees in your headphones. It’s not a perfect drill method, but it means the time under the hot sun isn’t totally wasted.

This is a universal truth, except for people whose self-respect extends to their gardens. It’s time that could be spent on things that matter. I could try to distance myself at this point and say that maybe I shouldn’t turn towards children for philosophies on weed and treant maintenance, or I could state that Bee taught me something… then get a novel on tape on MP3, “plug in” and learn Python.

I got snippets of the other characters in Bee and did wish there was a chance to learn more about them. One in particular was Jerome, although when we all went to the zoo I wasn’t sure if the story was indicating that he was showing aptitude to become a veterinarian or the next Re-Animator.

Another one of the things I loved was that for one stretch, Difficulties With Money continually showed up as an option. I have never seen anything approaching that in IF – while what happened when I selected that one did not seem change, its appearance was always about, always on the screen, an unstoppable force. A very real one, too and not a video game monster. Just by being selectable constantly, it was a spectre of just how poorly the family was doing with money. That was wonderful design.

The ending I got depicted a family where the children were in public school and mom had to get a job — I am hesitant to call that a bad ending, because that’s how things really were for me growing up, though I guess my mother’s opinion on whether it was “good” or not would probably hold more weight. I can’t categorize this Varytale experience as a role-playing game, CYOA story, text adventure, all three or something in between, but Bee made me want to spend more time with the people inside it, which is more important than classification, anyway.

howling dogs, by Porpentine

So, the opening quote didn’t particularly speak to me. That’s OK, because the opening text in a game can serve to shoo away the players that aren’t going to get anything that comes after anyway. Especially since, seconds later, you get a line like this:

Just a long chute and you can’t hear the bottom. That is the news.

Aw yeah.

My chief criticism of present-day IF is when games do not seem to understand that there are a million other things to be doing. I can’t stand it when games put me in an environment without an immediate goal. I always thought the only way to get around the lack of a goal is to make me laugh, but in howling dogs by Porpentine I am presented with a shower. I find (in real life) that a long, hot shower melts away the pains of the day, and it’s lovingly described here. And you can only take one per day, which matches with my personal water heater that I’d like to slip a noose over. Anyway, I was thinking that I still don’t have a goal but there is a sense of warmth over me, so everything’s fine.

As it turns out, I was given a goal — the activity room. And at that point I had to laugh at myself — there was definitely somewhere to go to, a place to see, I’m just so used to places in IF called the “Round Room” or whatever that I didn’t “see” it. That was nicely done.

After taking care of a few, er, human functions, we get to go into that very activity room. We are asked to describe a pixely garden — with three choices presented to us, and the game’s writing the only thing to guide. It is a very confident move. (And I’ve always felt that the real way to a man’s heart is through intense pixelation.)

Soon after we descend into something that I’m calling surrealism, although I know it isn’t precisely that. It is here where the game lost me as a player but transitioned me into a reader. (Which is a powerful thing to do. Playing Guild of Thieves in the 80s temporarily transitioned me into thinking I was British.) I think it is safe to say that howling dogs creates a different 3D mental space for a veteran of Infocom and Magnetic Scrolls versus someone who missed old text games? It messed with my comfort zone and, God, I really need to calm down a little bit when I realize that I am not going to be able to map a game with my brain because it wasn’t speaking in architecture and compass directions. There is a “we” that is introduced, though I’ll assume it’s related to the photograph from the opener. We’re given the option to kill. I can not tell you how we got from one spot in the story to the bed, but I let go and accepted it.

A good way to sum up my experience comes from this passage:

I run from his death throes and open every window and door in the house. In floods the cold moor wind and the flap of curtains is fluttering applause.

I don’t know why I would open the windows and doors after murdering my partner in bed. (When I’m offing people in games, my next step is usually to hit “R”.) But this act, once you accept it as inevitable, was beautifully described and done concisely, in a way I know I couldn’t.

Having to go through the eating and drinking bit so many times did not work for me – I’m capable of getting that being trapped in there was miserable. It was miserable because of the contrast in the crazy stuff happening in the activity room. Mixing up or adding more text for obtaining nutrients is the author’s responsibility in a recurring scene because it is such a gift to have a player’s attention in this world — a world that includes Selenium — and a player that is, by definition, progressing further and further into the tale.

(That said, getting a new, beautiful graphic was a nice reward for going through the motions in obtaining nutrients.)

I did want to note that the interface was great – I loved that Porpentine could intentionally place objects in the room and not let you click on them. Devious! I liked the blur on the text and the design of the “rooms” with dozens of possible choices.

In fact, having played howling dogs a few times, I am absolutely torn on the bit with dozens of possible hyperlink choices. I had no insight as to what might progress the narrative. That’s bad. Clicking on most of the links give you no reward, just a “How interesting!” reply. That’s bad… right? Or is it? I know that players will quickly stop hearing the repeated text and it will just blur into a lizard brained “no.useful.input”. So not having a proper reply is therefore good, yeah? But what a missed opportunity to write… but at the same time, there was a direction to go towards, so adding distinct text there would defeat the purpose.

I still don’t know how I feel. I’ve flipped at least twice in just writing this review. It’s probably beyond boolean conclusions. It’s really an example of an interesting design decision.

The manner in which we got to each individual scene in howling dogs did not make sense to me. I think it’s the weakest part of the game. If the fascist police state we live in, in the real world, asked me to describe what the game was truly about, I’d stammer a bit before ending up in the same flat cell depicted in the game itself. That said, the actual act of experiencing those scenes was often quite pleasurable. And if given the choice, I’ll always choose that than the opposite.

Eurydice, by Anonymous

Eurydice starts out with no goals or direction which drives me crazy. We do, however, start out in the room of our dearly departed friend Celine. As a member of the International Adventurer’s Club I began rifling through her possessions, trying to take everything not glued down, but in between sessions I thought, “What an amazing place to start a game.” Games really ought to begin at the last possible moment they could begin, and Eurydice does that.

We start to learn a little bit about the player character with lines like this:

You painted this – in the loosest sense of the word – when you were about eighteen and nurturing an over-inflated sense of your own creativity

Hey, the PC hates himself! That’s not cool, but maybe we’ll figure out why eventually.

Traveling into the house, there are a number of non-player characters that are designed fairly well. We can’t tell if the PC is a huge introvert, or if he just hates a lot of people. This particular challenge – “becoming” someone at their worst and when they are enveloped in grief, is something I was faced with in making my game called A Crimson Spring. (The PC’s girlfriend had just died.) As a result, I was a lot more forgiving of the PC’s attitudes than I would be otherwise, I think, because I had been through this. Well, I haven’t been through death of this magnitude. I had been through attempting a character portrait like this. It still resulted in empathy.

Eurydice speaks to loss fairly well. Virtually the entire game has the spectre of misery about it. I liked this line:

All the things you thought you cared about feel like mockery.

This is a really honest statement when it comes to loss. Lovingly crafted. I enjoy British games a lot, so when I see lines like this:

It might annoy you in somebody else but Elsie’s tea is the sincerest tea you have ever drunk.

It resonates with me. I wish I knew what sincere tea meant, though. I bet some of you are having sincere tea right now.

And while I am really not trying to list all the great bits of this game, I have to mention this one, because it’s so good:

You wonder if Celine’s box of wrapping paper, ribbons and decorations is still beneath the eaves, or if her parents took that too. “Why go to all that trouble for something that’s just going to be ripped off?” you’d ask. But Celine loved the ephemeral. And, so, apparently did you.

This is a really touching line, one of the most touching I’ve ever seen in IF. And I almost did not encounter it at all because the game told me I didn’t want to go up to that room to begin with.

I eventually saw in the Help Menu that the player might want to try commands twice. This is pretty indefensible design — there were a host of items in that room that gave crucial info on what happened to Celine. I would think that I would want to wave players up there. Maybe have a third base coach freaking out and demanding it. Instead, we are given the stop sign there and expected to just ignore the authority figure telling us to hold up, like so many Brett Lawries.

While in the living-room of NPCs mourning, I found myself digging into people’s coats — I found the 50 pence coin and I will admit it did not “click” with me just what might be going on. But since I played this one in shifts, I had time to think about it. And I will give Eurydice a ton of credit for this: do you remember how we used to play these text adventures? We’d buy one, get the tacit approval of the guy at Babbages because we selected the best game on the shelf, we’d undo the shrink-wrap, play a bit and get stuck. And we’d ponder the game. We’d go to school, get super-psyched to try something and then run home and see that it worked.

Because I played Eurydice in shifts, I had the experience of that 50p coin “clicking” and realizing that we’re going into Hades, baby! What a nice, old-school feeling.

It was in playing the endgame that I was able to forgive Eurydice for making me repeat commands in the open – it really does use that insistence as a gameplay element later. However, that means that we get into situations like this:

You can’t go back, you can’t go through them. It’s time to turn around.

Well, Mr. Parser, why should I believe anything you say?

I didn’t catch all the endings for Eurydice, but I loved how many a-ha moments it had. Finding Celine was creepy, and a really great piece of IF — finding dead people and making them do things really ought to be creepy. It’s definitely written well enough to force a player along, and I really enjoyed the shifts in tone. NPCs aren’t afraid to freak out a little bit or give way to the inherent beauty of the lyre.

I do feel motivated to find all the endings. After a bit of a slow start, Eurydice really picks up and becomes a neat little puzzler, using a well-known myth to propel gameplay.

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