Joey Jones is the co-author of philosophy romp The Chinese Room, and Calm, a post-apocalyptic tea-drinking simulator. Interested in pushing the boundaries of parser fiction, he was behind the meta-fictional IFDB Spelunking and is currently working on a much expanded re-release of the adverb-only blank verse game, Danse Nocturne. His interests include literature, foraging, and the abolition of paid employment.
The finalists for Implementation were Trapped in Time, Depression Quest, their angelical understanding, Coloratura and Robin and Orchid.
Trapped in Time (Simon Christiansen)
The problem with your classic branching story is that to avoid the endless explosion of possibilities, you tend to get one or sometimes two main branches and everything that comes off of that is pulled back in or ends abruptly. The usual addition to this model is to track states (if you have the beige handkerchief, turn to page 77) but then you often have the problem of getting to the end of the story and losing because you didn’t pick one choice about six choices back. There are a few ways to make this kind of design feel rewarding: you can make the correct paths fair to discern, with the interest being the way you overcome the linear series of challenges; you can embrace a profusion of possible rewarding endings; or you can make the game essentially impossible to lose.
The first approach is fairly common among ChoiceScript games: the puzzle in playing is in choosing choices that fit your tastes without prematurely ending the story. The second approach can be seen admirable in Ryan North’s Hamlet, where there are three different protagonists each with their own stories and every death is rewarded with unique comic art. The third way is seen in many of the more linear hypertext games. Christiansen steps beyond these usual ways of solving the design issue in making every choice you make in the game a productive choice, whilst maintaining a puzzle element. By productive choice, I mean, one that gives you information and doesn’t lead to a dead end. The circular structure of the game encourages exploration and risk taking in contrast to traditional branching stories that contain persistent risk of failure with every step.
Further, Trapped in Time, while naturally limited in scope, has a complete implementation of every possibility offered by its unique number adding mechanic. If the player wants to tell the guard in the corridor about their near-death experience, or shoot their co-workers, it’s all there. Rather than branching possibilities, the game offers a complete implementation of its specific mechanics in an interesting but constrained environment.
Sometimes it was unclear at what point the numbers should be added, which led to me occasionally having to backtrack and re-add, ending up in incompatible places. The world-setting of that the story took place could have been more richly drawn, what was there resting substantially on prior genre conventions. This said, Trapped in Time achieved what it set out to do, suitably enmeshing its mechanic with its setting.
Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, Isaac Schankler)
Sad music is sad in the same way that the willow weeps: metaphorically. The composer needn’t have been sad, nor the musicians, nor need it actually evoke sadness: rather the structure of the music, its rises and falls, is like sadness and so on for any other kind of emotive music. The first thing that hits you when booting up Depression Quest is the professional award-laden website, which frames the game: priming the player to expect a certain degree of quality. But the second thing that hits the player on booting Depression Quest is the bleak piano music that continues throughout. It literally sets a persistent tone that fits one of the messages of the game: depression when you’re depressed is ubiquitous.
If the music sets the backdrop to the game, being unobstrusive but important, the occasional crowd chatters and hums help aurally demarcate different scenes, along with the flickering polaroid gifs that appear at the head of every page. The mild flickering probably has some sort of symbolic meaning but it is also a sign of technical competency: the game is unrelentingly consistent in its audio-visual presentation. Each of the polaroid images are linked to different characters and situations, allowing a kind of cohesion of similar scenes throughout the piece.
The primary aim of Depression Quest is to raise awareness and empathy by forcing the reader to embody the life of a depressed person. Most of the choices are everyday dilemmas about how to spend one’s time and how to interact with one’s friends and loved ones, with the twist being that the obvious best choice is always crossed out: the good always remains as a possibility that you can’t bring yourself to take. As in a traditional hypertext tale, the choices to proceed are enumerated in a list at the bottom of each page. By having choices you can never take appear, the structure of the hypertext story, its core mechanic, is made to serve the thematic message of the piece: that the choices that non-depressed people take for granted are not unknown to the depressed person, but are nonetheless unselectable. This is coupled with the persistent update at the bottom of each page as to your state of mental well-being, medication, and therapy. This is a simpler and more elegant solution than having a sidebar that is easily forgotten, or routinely having to embed that information into every scene.
Some of the choices (to cat or not to cat?) didn’t really seem to impact much on the actual story, there being a certain amount of padding going on, but almost every scene was formed such that its central choice reiterated the core idea of the piece. At every turn you have to prioritise what to spend your mental energy on. Though, of course, it turns out that trying to do the most positive thing you can do in any given situation is in fact the way to achieve the most ideal ending. Which is perhaps as it should be.
Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)
Lynnea Glasser’s comp-winner will probably receive a lot of attention from the other reviewers, so I’ll limit myself here to a few remarks about its specific implementation. This award might as well be called ‘best use of the medium’: a well implemented parser game is necessarily different from a well implemented hypertext game. Coloratura is designed in such a way that it plays fully to the strengths of the medium. That is to say, it rewards the player for their inventiveness in their command while drawing them into a unique and consistent world.
The promise of the parser is that it’ll understand anything sensible you throw at it. This promise is one each author must break as gracefully as they can, finding their point of compromise. Coloratura fulfils this promise better than most games, and not just through the robust range of commands it accepts. In having to type a command rather than choose from a list of options, the player has greater autonomy over their choices: their actions are not merely selected, the act of writing involves more intimate complicity. In Coloratura the player finds themselves learning strange commands unique to the game, like psychically untethering people and recolouring their auras. In learning and using the strange commands, the player actively comes to inhabit the alien intelligence they control. It’s the difference between a game saying press x to mind control! and setting up a situation where what they know about their character and the world it inhabits leads them independently to try mind controlling.
This strong design is seen also in the room descriptions and action reports, where everything is described from the alien point of view. The real world is so full of stuff that any game is going to be necessarily incomplete in its presentation of realistic places. Not that this sort of completion should be any particular goal (a game would be very tedious if every loose hair and pebble were described…). The interaction possible with any game world is always limited to what the author considered reasonable to implement. Depending on the thematic aims of any given game, much scenery is usually abstracted away: what is presented is what’s interesting and what can be described given the tyranny of the ‘examine’ verb. Coloratura neatly side-steps much of this by presenting everything from the very specific perspective of its unique and alien viewpoint. This allowing much that isn’t interesting to the story, or for that matter, the player, to be avoided because it isn’t interesting to the protagonist. The expectation of veridical reports of realistic places isn’t present because the player is introduced so completely to the strangeness of their character through the opening singing section. The whole is a lesson is solid game design, but more than that, solid design for a parser.
Robin & Orchid (Ryan Veeder, Emily Boegheim)
One specific benefit that parser fiction has over its hypertext cousins is in the ease in which a consistent and reactive environment can be developed. This is by no means impossible in hypertext, but requires much more effort to achieve a lot less. Robin & Orchid presents a compellingly drawn environment, both physical and social, which the player must explore and is encouraged to do so both by the story itself and the richness of its implementation.
There are a few things that stood out for me. The book of notes went beyond being a pretty obvious hint system, in that it was consistently presented from the unique voice, and this was a good way to bring an additional character into the game in which much of the play is spent exploring locations alone. The implementation of physical systems was well handled, with the sticky ectoplasm being particularly memorable. The core photographing mechanic was solid such that its implementation helped engender a trust in the authors. The player is encouraged to believe that their more inventive or story-appropriate actions will be rewarded with unique scenes and a persistent record of what they’ve done.
Co-authorship is a great means for creating richer game worlds: a novelist only has so much space to write their novel and a single author is most of the times sufficient; but a crafter of exploration based parser fiction is presented with the huge task of presenting a vibrant and compelling world to explore that also rewards a rich range of player interaction, much of which won’t be game critical, but helps enrich the setting and player experience. Having more hands on the job only helps, and this is clearly manifest in the combined efforts of Boegheim and Veeder.
their angelical understanding (Porpentine)
Porpentine, hyper-prolific twinester, continues to sharpen her craft with her 2013 comp entry which continued the trend towards high quality hypertext entries that started with Deirdra Kiai’s The Play and Bloomengine’s The Binary back in 2011.
A good interactive story in the capacity of being an interactive story is good at being one insofar as its interactions meaningfully intersect with its story. Less convolutedly expressed, it is a criticism of any interactive fiction if its interaction has no impact on the story as it is presented in the player’s mind as they read. Meaningful interaction can be achieved in different ways in hypertext and Porpentine is forever developing new ways in the Twine medium. The traditional interaction is to branch the story and give different endings depending on the branching. While different endings can be selected right at the very end, the overall flow of the story is linear. The interaction comes in navigating locations and choosing from different variations in the text.
There are a number of locations which need to be explored and repeated until certain trigger points are met (a person talked to, an action made or a total number of actions taken). This light world-modeling is competently handled and much of it makes sense in the context of the story as a journey through a fantastic land and various flashbacks and nightmares.
The primary form of interaction (beyond, obviously, the manual clicking of different parts of the text) is in the player’s frequent opportunity to modify what text is displayed. While some of this is fairly cosmetic, on the whole the text alteration is such that it shapes the player’s interpretation of events, and what makes the final choice a meaningful one is that it’s rightness depends on the player’s interpretation.
Writing-wise, the text is oblique but evocative and the text chunks are all manageable. There are no wrong choices so the story-as-a-game can never said to be unfair in the way a typical choice story might be. The story also uses a dizzying panopoly of audio and visual effects, which modify the emotional tone of each scene. The uniqueness of the interface pushes it beyond the usual hypertext formats, making it a more distinct entity as a game. The story’s presentation is highly produced, there are text shifts and colour changes and strange loops; though one might reasonably wonder whether the effects were chosen before the story elements they were meant to enrich. Ultimately, for Porpentine the glamour of the form is more important than the coherence of narrative; or more charitably, the kind of stories she’s interested in telling are disjointed, episodic and visually fabulous, and she shapes the medium to fit her unique vision.
I definitely chose every effect for a pre existing story element…not the other way around. Everything was intentional.
Ah, interesting. I shouldn’t have implied any wrongdoing if it were the other way around: designing story elements around a pre-thought out mechanic or graphical effect can be a reasonable way to go about making a game. It’s not necessarily like, say, letting the rhyme scheme determine content of a line in a poem: any decision on structure is going to constrain or suggest the kinds of stories that can be told within that structure and novel constraints can force the author to be inventive.
I’ll bear your remark here in mind the next time I play one of your games.