Duncan Bowsman on Best Setting 2012

Duncan Bowsman writes on Counterfeit Monkey, Zero Summer, Changes and howling dogs.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

Setting: Anglophone Atlantis.

One thing before I dive into the more obvious and substantial way in which Counterfeit Monkey‘s setting is unique amongst other entries for Best Setting. On its website are offered a few supplemental images, I assume included in the tradition of Infocom’s “feelies.” These supplemental pieces of art offer a slice of the storyworld to the players before they engage with the text itself, and they also offer a bit of motivation. For example, in Border Zone, didn’t it feel great to get to the part where you can use the Frobnian dictionary? Often this is described as “a nice touch,” but while I’d say that, I’d also like to add that these pre-immersive artifacts are a well-received aid to players in forming a more complete mental model of any particular gameworld and performing an in-character role. In Counterfeit Monkey, these preparatory peeks into this world from within it motivate players and invite them into the playful tone of the setting.

Strangely, this was also the only entry in this category to include a map.

Now to the more significant way in which this setting differs from the others: its mechanic of word manipulation. I don’t want to dwell too much on this because I realize that I’m not reviewing for Best Game or Best Puzzles (which Counterfeit Monkey also won), but one cannot review a game’s setting without considering the mechanics that inform and shape it. Here the mechanical shaping of the setting is considerable because the game’s techniques of wordplay extend across the ontology of its fiction, so that the textuality of its representations are significant as more than a medium but as actual matter. The setting, in a very real way, becomes the thing to be played with.

The selection of nouns and their modifiers in every scene counts so much for the construction of setting in Counterfeit Monkey than either of the other entries, since it is the words themselves that must be plumbed in order to progress. The creation and formation of language is not only political in Anglophone Atlantis, but paramount. It forms the topography of a cityscape, such that Anglophone and Francophone worlds are full of different possibilities. Depluralizing cannons make fast work of enemy ships in an invasion. Wordplay is resistance.

The setting performs a careful balancing act, too. It is a comedy amidst a climate of human rights abuses and political unrest; the characters’ motivations are serious and real. At the same time, the answer to a serious situation often turns out to be a delightfully surreal or absurd. It’s funny, but considered. Serious, yet satirical.

Zero Summer, by Gordon Levine, Tucker Nelson and Becca Noe

Setting: Amarillo, TX. 2026. Post-apocalypse.

I have to begin this by repeating that it is to some extent impossible to talk about how a game forms its setting without touching on the mechanics that it uses to reveal it. That said, Zero Summer plays like Fallen London and in a world more like Gun Mute. It manages to do so in a way that makes for a highly-detailed setting.

Storylets offer glimpses into the intricately imagined social and environmental fabric of post-apocalyptic Amarillo. We learn how the local brew (“Cornskunk”) is made, how the law is kept through the Rule of One (and what that means), how to survive a sudden dust storm, etc. The details of this setting’s life are abundant. Every storylet seems to simultaneous reveal and promise a little more, like unwrapping small presents from an Advent calendar if somebody had stocked said calendar with monsters or antique coins, bullets and a rough-and-tumble fistfight. Their writing is evocative without being flowery. Fittingly for the linked storylet form, Zero Summer tends towards succinctness rather than wasting words, the quick gut punch over a long haymaker.

Like Fallen LondonZero Summer unfortunately very deliberately enforces grinding, meaning that certain storylets must be read over and over in order to progress. At first, re-reading may build a sense of familiarity in the setting, as we see how failure and success play out for our protagonist in different challenges, but because the repetition of the storylets doesn’t add any new information, play turns from an experience of attentive reading to one of clicking buttons and scanning or skipping text. This quickly becomes distancing and challenges suspension of disbelief.

A setting is not only the place of a narrative, but its time, and another element that brought me out of Zero Summer was the way the story deals with time. The game begins in Morning 1, but doesn’t advance automatically. The happenings described by a single card often seem to be things that would take at least a whole morning in and of themselves, though. It was more like time had suspended, or else more time was actually passing but a significant morning hadn’t passed into a significant afternoon– that couldn’t be the case, though, because the dates are also marked. After playing for a couple weeks and still being in Morning 1, I decided I was just unable to rationalize how it was possible for these events to be synchronous with the time. If there was a diagetic explanation for it, it just wasn’t salient enough. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this aspect of the setting. That didn’t make me give up on the game, but it did make me feel like I had to wave away a major mechanical representation of the setting to make sense of it.

Changes, by David Given

Setting: The wilderness of planet Elysia, somewhere on the edge of the Alpha Continent Massif.

That Changes was not the only game in the 18th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition to feature an alien forest world with a cat-like creature that wants to kill the protagonist, a puzzle surrounding a pestering primate, and a special attention to fish says less about the unoriginality of such a setting and more about the incredible frequency with which certain unintended themes arise out of competition entries. This form of parallel evolution is all the more apropos for discussing Changes, which explicitly makes note of similarities in the organic development of life on Earth-like planets and whose primary science fiction aspect involves survival and adaptation within the context of a weirdly telepathic planet. Changes is a world of interrelations and coherent complexity.

The geography of Changes feels plausible as a real world place, interconnected from desert to mountain, marsh to river. The main reason for this feeling of plausibility, though, is not just in the location descriptions themselves, which are often passively written, but in that these locations explicitly act as habitats for Elysian life. Lemurs have adapted to swing through its trees, rabbits have adapted to dig burrows in the soft forest floor, and one learns that both of their chosen dwellings help these creatures avoid predatory lynx-like-fox-things. These connections animate the landscape; a burrow becomes more than a burrow.

While grounding its setting in the traditional room-by-room basis of parser-based interactive fiction, Changes also signals where other creatures are in any adjacent rooms, providing a situational awareness and further sense of connectedness to the setting. Cursed did this kind of thing in the IFComp previous, but Changes does it better, allowing for changes in emotional inflection that characterize the landscape as lived space, as well as providing the player a sense of predictability. This predictability is not only crucial to learning how to play the game, but builds on the sense that the player character is functioning within the clockwork of a vivid and precisely imagined ecosystem.

But this is also a setting permeated by the (non-Zarfian) cruelty of animals. Taking corpses to the Mother Tree is how one can “rise” through the ranks of animals to eventually reclaim a human form. That’s a bit teleological for my tastes as far as representing evolutionary processes, but totally excusable by the magic of science fiction that anchors Elysia. It does get explained with a reason in the plot that satisfied me as a reader, anyway, and that I will leave you to discover for yourself.

The cruelty of the setting can get a little frustrating, though. It is difficult, for example, to appropriately take in the details of the setting when hounded by a fox-thing that often has the player one turn away from death, or having to undo. Puzzle solutions likewise expect the player to partake in this Grand Guignol theater of the wild, requiring a level of sinister plotting and exploitation that was in parts unclear to me without the walkthrough (luckily provided in-game).

If I have one criticism of the setting in Changes, it is perhaps that its theme of rebirth is not salient enough at first blush. Soon after starting one sees an initial scene suggesting the powers of the Mother Tree in some way, but that’s it. One might reasonably expect that if the organisms of the planet are aware of this power, they might use it with more frequency. On a purely functional level of play, if (like me) you saved and had to put the game away for a while before reloading, the scene and its implications are forgettable. Luckily, it is near the start and can be seen again quickly on restarting, so that’s not too much of a problem. It is likely that implementing such an element at full scale, with other creatures constantly exploiting the Mother Tree in the same way, would have actually made for an overall less clear and more hectic experience, in a situation where clarity and easily visible, deducible interrelations are key to success.

  howling dogs, by Porpentine

Setting: ???

When we spoke at GDC, Porpentine mentioned that players have identified the initial room of howling dogs as a number of places… a prison, a sanitarium, an alien spaceship. They could all be right; it doesn’t really even matter. To me, that first room was sparsity, understatement, and dwindling despair. Even after a couple replays, I still wasn’t totally sure what or where it was, but I certainly knew how it made me feel and that is this game’s currency.

Encapsulating or even identifying the whole setting of howling dogs is a little challenging. The piece is made of disconnected, lurid vignettes whose connections are more thematic than spatial: a murderous wife, a tortured prophet, a horrific battle, the festival of a doomed empress. These are all encountered through a sort of virtual reality headpiece from the first room and seem in this way to represent either inner, psychological space, scattered memories, or some sort of generated dreams. There is the possibility none of it is real, and the only actual place is that not entirely identifiable room. Unlike that room, the rest gets sketched in a surreal blend of language completely symbolic, far too literal, and otherwise so fanciful that it allows a wide openness to interpretation. Their main connections are not rooms or corridors, but death (okay, often murder) and decay. Desperation underlies everything. For the narration, there is no time to reflect and intellectual understanding is not necessary. Often even the difference between what is meant symbolically and what is literal is blurred, creating a dreamlike, disorienting effect that heightens the emotional impact of the story’s literary barrages by ungrounding events from the known or experienceable and forcing us as readers to take them on affect.

By far the most detailed setting within the crazy quilt of worlds that howling dogs stitches together is its festival scene. While playing as empress of the starry diadem, we get this wall of text describing all of the amazing, absurd things going on, “servants wearing masks of pure black pour dreamliquid for everyone… and somehow the shadows are leaking petals… sparks fly as the firecracker mime hops around spraying jets of fire” and so on. Here everything carries on without caring or even needing to be relatable, comprehensible, or really knowable. Yet what really hammers home the overwhelmingness of the scene is that nearly every other word or so of it is an implemented hyperlink, and the ultimate rub is that nearly every one of them leads to a page with a mere two word response: “How interesting.” Using the simple hypertextual affordances of Twine, Porpentine effectively represents sensory overstimulation with the aloof bemusement of aristocracy. A whole lot goes on, not all of which is exactly coherent to us (what is dreamliquid?), but an emotional salience stands above the scene, lords over it.

That, in particular, neatly sums up how I felt about the setting of howling dogs. A red LCD in that weird maybe-prison room shows numbers that increase throughout, but we can only guess that it measures the time. The whole experience is less about the traditional trappings of setting, time or place– is even actively not about them to some extent, and its nomination for Best Setting was all the more necessary for it. It is mood made foremost. To play howling dogs is to dive into desperation.

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