Katherine Morayati on Best Writing

Katherine Morayati is the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in 2009’s Interactive Fiction Competition and was nominated for several XYZZYs, winning Best NPCs and Best Individual PC.  By day and by night, she writes about music (as Katherine St. Asaph, which is a long story that involves Steps) for a whole bunch of places. She promises she will finish another game soon.

The Best Writing finalists were Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Will Select A Decision.

The Best Writing category is always fun. For something that’s one of IF’s main selling points – the reason we call it “interactive fiction,” not “interactive game dealies where all the pictures are gone” – IF writing can excel in as many ways as static writing. 2014 is a neat field to show this off; while Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Must Select a Decision, have all sorts of nifty coincidental similarities – my favorite: two out of three finalists feature hand-stabbing games that end in death! – they couldn’t be more different in tone. Hey, that’s a musical term! Which brings me to:

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

The word “coloratura” is primarily associated with opera. While opera’s celebrity and financial realities don’t bear this out (hi, mezzos!), the cool thing about opera is that its system of vocal types – fachs, to be specific – allows many different ways for a voice to be virtuosic. There are a few axes, and they overlap: lyric singers (the ones whose voices drip poignance and tragedy and love), dramatic singers (the ones whose voices move like laser-guided glaciers), and coloratura singers: the ones who can navigate florid, heavily embellished passages without tripping or losing breath.

Why am I talking about opera? (Except that “coloratura,” as the title, is a cool stealth pun on “space opera,” but I doubt that’s intentional.) Because I’m not a dancer, but good writing, to me, has always felt like choreography: step-kick-kick-leap-kick-touch, again, turn, turn, turn, point, point, point, finish. (But that isn’t opera either! I’m getting there.) Good writing can also evoke good singing, and while I was never good enough a singer to use any of these adjectives on myself (though I embarrassed myself at age 14 on LiveJournal doing so), I know enough to call this the writing equivalent of a coloratura passage:

The Song of the Universe envelops you, pulsing through you in the otherworldly aether. You sing, sing, sing the song of ancients, of the unending, of all to come and be. Your semi-aqueous body kneads upon itself, in time to the rhythm: Spread, then fold, spread, then fold. The Universe echoes infinitely your leitmotif: Erupt, engulf, erupt, engulf.

I mean, that sounds like an aria translation! You can tell where the cadenzas would go, the high notes. It’s even got a part where the chorus would come in, echoing into infinity. Also, it’s completely horrifying.

(SPOILERS BEGIN BELOW)

 

 

Coloratura is a game about a giant murderous alien blob from umpteenfinity leagues underneath the sea that takes out hundreds of scientists who dare disturb or study it, as well as their research vessel and all their high-tech machinery. The reason Coloratura is in the Best Writing category is because it doesn’t feel like a game about a giant murderous alien blob that takes out humans and machinery, because of writing like the above. Coloratura is by far the most decorated game of its awards year, and there are many reasons why; Glasser mentions a few on her design blog. A lot of the accolades were for Coloratura’s premise and implementation, which are both solid – note how the text seamlessly incorporates puzzle clues and mapping cues. But the writing is good on its own merits too, so kitschy-florid you don’t even notice how solid it is.

Coloratura’s New Age narration at first threatens to grate, and fast – I’ll admit the intro at first gave me Randi-like twinges, before I knew what was going on – but Coloratura wisely limits the woo, by design. You’re most at home, where “at home” means liable to “sing, sing, sing the song of ancients,” when you’re in your Cellarium, not when you’re wandering around an unfamiliar human ship. But since your Cellarium’s otherwise occupied, you’re forced to wander, and to narrate everything not in Secret-speak but with a wonderful, quirky-disturbing alien sensibility. Humans have “meat-tongues”; actual meat screams in distress. Beds are “stacked shelves”; your own Cellarium is like a cloud in heaven. Machinery putters away like you might at a dull job or (once it’s wrecked) vomits; humans working do things like “tendon-muscle-attend.” These humans don’t get names at first, being nameless interchangeable Blind Ones, but as the alien learns more and half-empathizes with them, she starts differentiating between the saps, first with job titles (Captain, Engineer), then with names, or at least her syntactically iffy attempts to understand those names (“the Rosa,”) and finally names as we might understand them: Rosa, Mercy. It’s both an effective immersion technique and subtle foreshadowing of a plot point – one of these women takes to the alien early on, the one the alien calls by name from start. (Of note: Everyone in the story is female but the Drifter, who is male. Glasser’s cited inclusionist reasons, which is laudable, but I suspect there’s one more reason – given what is going on during the initial scene and the Drifter’s inner monologue the game prompts you to hear, the scene would take on different implications with a female Drifter, and I really doubt Glasser wanted to go there.)

Coloratura is also a rather musical game; Glasser has provided an extensive soundtrack, and in the text, the alien describes most things in musical terms. Scientists speak in staccato. Engines sputter dead with a ritardando. Bound up with the music is color and emotion, a bit likesynesthesia. Specifically, every emotion has a shade: white is bliss, red is panic, gray is indifference and so forth. These colors suffuse all human speech; when people talk, it’s like they have auras, and when they stop talking, those auras leave color contrails, emotions marking the room. Later on, the alien becomes more proactive and starts influencing people’s emotions herself, which leads to puzzle solutions as well as a few wonderful throwaway moments. Try coloring the Captain blue while talking to the Engineer. Is that a shipping gag? (One missed opportunity: I was initially put off by the fact that the colors and their meanings – white is bliss, red is panic, et cetera – hewed a bit too closely to their human, and specifically Western, associations. An alien from Mars, perhaps, might think red is calm and cyan is distressingly unnatural. But no, on second thought, it’s fine.)

Let’s talk some more about that mass murder. One of the biggest, stalest game-design debates is about games and moral choice, and one of the standard points raised during these tired debates is that it’s always too simple: kill the truck full of baby puppies, or maybe don’t. For a premise that’s inherently pulpy, Coloratura is surprisingly nuanced here. To advance in the game, you have to do some morally dubious things, from mind control to possession to outright murder, but unlike in something like Rendition, you barely notice. The first puzzle involving the color mechanic asks you to nudge the Captain to one side or the other of her hesitation: to make her feel feelings that she’s basically already considering. That’s not so bad, right? Technically, you can turn her any color, but Glasser’s text only mentions the two, and everything else leads to a game over. It’s puzzle cluing as moral guidance. Later come more small, justified intrusions: inducing the curiosity that Mercy’s too scared to feel, giving the scarred Drifter a few fleeting glimpses of a happier life. They’re written to seem like good deeds:

The Drifter recalls fleeting harmonies of blue love and kinship. He falls back to grey. In despair, you push and pull again, more forcefully. But it does nothing. His mind is gone. Perhaps one day, with time, he can repair himself. But you can do nothing for him now, except grant him fleeting glimpses of memories and feelings he used to enjoy.

Given what you did to the Drifter to put him into this state – again, we’ll get to that – it’s a bit rich, and it’s also vague (but intentionally; you couldn’t put concrete memories in here, the alien wouldn’t understand them) but it’s also touching, and why shouldn’t it be? Only later are you encouraged to manipulate all the emotions, coldly, toward your own goals. As for possession, you get comfortable with the mechanic – and the idea – by possessing what’s essentially a meat golem, and while Coloratura’s writing does an admirable job of making you empathize with a freezer full of pork chops, it’s still not, y’know, human. Later on you possess an actual human, Mercy – but only because she allows you to. And possessing her leads her to her death, but she’s OK with that, right? Every moral objection is so smoothly brushed over, you don’t even notice it until after the fact. (There are hints, too, that the alien might not be an entirely reliable narrator – she expresses dismay over killing, except when she doesn’t, which is mostly when shit needs to get done.)

And the greatest trick of Coloratura is the one you definitely don’t notice after the fact, the most pleasant terrible thing of all. Let’s look again at the song of the Universe:

Every Ancient and animate in all of space and time, weaving together the beauty and majesty of cohesion. It sings white in immaculate beauty and perfection.

Now back to the sleepers:

All pluck out their own primitive, discordant tune, not even creating a passable solo melody. It is soul-wrenching to witness. You cannot possibly enjoy your own beauty knowing such emotional poverty before you. Their strong connections to the physical world anchor them, prevent them from being able to Sing in true beauty.

It’s not even a choice! Infinite Elysian heavenly choirs, or the failed auditions on The X Factor. It’s also an easy puzzle, that a lot of commands will work to solve – in general, Coloratura does not have a whole lot of verb-guessing, and most commands are clued. Specifically, this is the command that’s clued: >HELP SLEEPERS. Aww.

So you do: “You untether them. White. Peace.” The puzzle is solved and you can explore the ship. It feels good on multiple levels: your inner hippie (yes, you’ve got one), your gamer creature-brain that rejoices when new areas open up (yes, you’ve got one, the game industry has literally proven it.) But – as Sam Ashwell points out in his review – you can also do this:

>KILL HUMANS

The cutting is liberating, not destructive. You untether them.

Six words, that say so much – a little bit sanctimonious, a little bit defensive, a little bit true-believer – if you see them. Coloratura’s writing is such that it’s an entirely different game based on where you are in your moral understanding of the situation (which is by no means black-and-white), which would be a hard trick to pull off over a comp-sized game even if you didn’t have to think like an alien too. Again: inobtrusively solid.

Their angelical understanding (Porpentine)

I am not an objective reviewer. I’ll never be. Porpentine, in the span of a year-ish, went from being a name I heard from time to time to being my favorite writer in interactive fiction. I’ve made this comparison before, but her writing often reminds me of Joy Williams (The Quick and the Dead, The Changeling), whom I love: a writer who works largely in the surreal, in blunt then beautiful vignettes, whose sentences at the phrase level can finish you.

The other thing Joy Williams is perhaps best known for is The Changeling being reissued by Fairy Tale Review Press six years ago after falling out of print in 1978 thanks to the hackjob of an astoundingly obtuse reviewer, a man (obviously) who couldn’t imagine why a phrase like “she was young but some day she would be covered with ants” might conceivably be in a magical realism book – not even on the literal level! – and thought a valid literary criticism is that he can’t visualize a very visualizable sentence like “Pearl dropped the brush and gripped her breasts and her eyes and her head in one complex and despairing gesture.” (For such an impossible gesture, it was surprisingly easy to do after reading his review.)

Which brings me to a point. Porpentine writes in Twine, and she’s so associated with the medium as to be near-synonymous with it. She’s also spoken at length about the pushback (and worse) she’s received after claiming her Twine works as interactive fiction games. I have no interest in the “is it a game? IS IT A GAME???” argument, which was silly in 1998 and even sillier now. To wit: A vocal chunk of the people who say they object to Twine really object to something else. Everybody knows what that “something else” is, and no one seems willing to acknowledge it, and thus what’s essentially trollish bigotry is allowed to masquerade as legitimate IF criticism when it would be better – for the field, for authors’ mental health – if it were just ignored. The remaining Twine objectors might be surprised to learn that they’re making essentially the same mistake the late Roger Ebert did: conflating medium with quality-to-date. Imagine if people called Inform – and by association, Z-code – inherently crap based on people’s joke entries and earnestly hesitant beginner’s efforts.

As it turns out, Twine is a medium, and like every medium there are ways in which it excels. Porpentine’s ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III wasn’t nominated in this category (though its writing is also quite good), but it demonstrates a few of these ways. The entire game is a multi-leveled metaphor: a game in which you play a game, the aforementioned Ultra Business Tycoon III. It is both designed explicitly as a game with puzzles and score and piracy detritus and even (hilarious) in-game manual, and a game whose structure is implicitly a nice metaphor for the medium of Twine itself, as many writers use it: linear, in the sense that there is a big tableau of writing where your goal is to click around and extract everything: all its text, and in the story also a million dollars. (Also, pathos! But again, different category, different review.) Part of that million rests inside your evil corporate office, where you find a device called the Embezzlertron – which is exactly what it sounds like: a device for you to methodically steal the shit out of everyone’s corporate earnings. To finish ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, you’ve gotta use this thing. And if parser, which asks the reader to supply commands from scratch, is great at struggling with what to do or say (arguing with your own self-doubt in Tapestry comes to mind), Twine is great at producing a certain state of flow, a click-clicky-click immersion that will catch you off guard. You embezzle away, earning a piddly but juust significant enough amount of money. You want more, right? Sure you do. Click MORE. A couple more dollars. MORE. It’s so fast. MORE. Click. A knock at the door. SHIT. Right?

In other words, Twine is great at timing. This often means comedic timing (TYCOON’s safety-knife gag comes to mind); the medium makes you play the perfect patsy. But sometimes it is not comedic at all.

Their angelical understanding is a more typical example of Porpentine’s work than the above. There’s a story – of revenge, mostly, and healing – told in dream sequences and flashbacks and heavily allegorical sequences. But they’re grounded, mostly due to her trademark stark imagery, no word wasted: “Dead angel dripping black pus, broke wing tilting with the wind.” The angel here isn’t dead enough, so you kick it, over and over, producing more pus, different seeping, images that get sick and sicker – it’s essentially the same mechanic used to generate background flavor text, and somehow that and the repetitive clicking makes the images bleed that much more. (Stark doesn’t always mean “gruesome,” though. The opening sentence, “you train to fight angels in a monastery by the sea,” is compelling in a more subtle way.) There are all sorts of imaginative elements: slot machines buried in the sand, hand elementals littering corpses that flop and crunch, a construct pasting ticket stubs to the top of an elevator, who’ll explain if you let him: “I’m trying to see the night sky.” There’s woven-in poetry and pop music – in this case, Rihanna lyrics, recontextualized to grim effect. (Porpentine does this a lot – one of her best-known pieces is a glittery exuberant love letter to Ke$ha – and like Coloratura, she provides a soundtrack of the game, a darkly glittery mix of Lana Del Rey remixes, Crystal Castles and Fuck Buttons. To be a Porpentine fan is to marvel at how everything rolls, Katamari-style, into her aesthetic; even other people’s band names sound like things only she would write.) And while their angelical understanding isn’t a funny game, per se – it isn’t meant to be – there are funny moments. One point in the game finds you pondering your destiny. Click on “destiny,” it’s replaced with “lol.” A few reviewers, including this site’s own Yoon Ha Lee, have called some of Porpentine’s more outright emotional passages overblown, but you can’t say they aren’t self-aware.

Another thing Twine is good at is a standard hypertext tack: chopping up words, injecting new words into sentences, breaking everything down or bloating it. At times their angelical understanding reminds me of Andrew Plotkin’s The Space Under the Window (1995) in its tricks of revising the text and moving the character, but there’s a lot that I haven’t seen before. Twine makes you click a lot to advance – flow, again – and  Porpentine uses this for “dancing around my bedroom,” which makes you actually click around the phrase: a kinetic effect that’s a bit startling and gives the plain-ish phrase some muscle-memory oomph. There are two sections where you’re trying to stammer out words that scare you, to a NPC or to yourself; you can do this for a while, producing sense then nonsense, and all of a sudden you just stop, and you’re left with whatever muddle of a stammer you stopped on. Which is how it goes in real life. The effects are inextricxable from the writing; a lot of their angelical understanding isn’t quotable per se but gains poignance by being the only thing on the screen, or only briefly flashed. And for the “is it a GAME?!” crowd, there’s a “parser voice,” of sorts – it’s mostly your character’s reactions, little interjections like “okay” and “hhh” and such – and there’s this wonderful moment of character creation toward the beginning. Here’s me:

In the bottle float hazel eyes, lips cracked with dehydration, and your pointed nose.

You shake it a little and see flowery spiral tattoo flowing from your left eye.

I feel like most readers, encountering this, will try to create themselves as best they can; I find this key. Their angelical understanding has two sorts of writing. There are the images no other writer could come up with (and in terms of sheer voracious creativity, no one working right now is on Porpentine’s level), and there are the simple emotional passages, which are simple because they ask readers to pour in their own experience. Your opponent in the tile game is drawn only in the most rudimentary terms; they are anyone who has let you down. Before this, there’s a segment addressing regrets – the PC’s regrets, technically but I suspect a lot of players have taken it as their regrets. It’s one of those old-school browser forms, in which you can write anything – and the form lends itself to the conversational, the confessional, the lowercase quick admission, in a Gchat maybe. This is the same impulse that makes you shout into an empty room, or scribble on a wall, and it can be startlingly affecting: “did I mention my _____” “Let it burn.” Granted, I find myself affected by such things more than most (I once made an earnest wish during a Let’s Play that asked me to), but I doubt I’m alone in finding this just one of many startlingly, cathartic moments. Porpentine’s growing fanbase bears it out.

You Must Choose a Decision (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

You Must Choose a Decision is also a Twine game, although a radically different sort. There are no fancy font effects, no breaking down of text, none of that malarkey. Instead, it’s a straight port of a CYOA, faux page numbers and all. And by “port” I mean it is this:

In 1987, an anonymous team of computer scientists from the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic wrote a series of children’s books based on the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books were hastily translated into English and a small number were exported to America, but the CIA, fearing a possible Soviet mind control scheme, confiscated them all before they could be sold.

Now declassified, the books have been lovingly converted to a digital hypertext format and put online for the English-speaking world to enjoy.

And by “it is this” I mean “it is a satire of this.” (Also, where was the CIA when Tetris arrived?) There’s not a fourth wall so much as an iron curtain; the game really does act like it believes it’s bona fide USSR CYOA. Like Coloratura, the writing style threatens to become very played very fast, particularly given how much mock Soviet kitsch is uniform all the way from Borat to Papers, Please. (Papers, Please wasn’t a joke! you object – and then I show you all the “Glory to Arstotzka” memes by the geeks and other memesmiths who’ve made it a bona fide hit rather than an excellent art-show curiosity.) And if the joke were just the writing style, it would be, if it didn’t become offensive first. But no, it’s just an excuse for the inventive machine-translatey syntax (“a slice of sweet cake”) and jokes about capitalism and secret police, which are lovingly folded into the rest of the jokes. There’s a little Lyttle Lytton here (in the “intentional unintentional comedy” sense, not the “wow brandon this sux like these other things that sux” sense), a little slapstick (again, helped along immensely by Twine’s sense of flow; you will be surprised how many times you can click into a “Nope! DEATH END” ending and still laugh), a lot of RPG and pulp clichés, jabs at gamebooks and analog-era ephemera. Hennessy has provided two stories (plus the titles of a couple more, hilarious in their own right); one is Into the Woods in a Siberian death-forest, the other Hoosegow as a sort of hub for the setting equivalent of twelve Kingdom of Loathing zones at once.

In short, if Coloratura provokes admiration, and their angelical understanding catharsis, You Must Select a Decision provokes one thing: actually making you laugh. (There’s a Metafilter thread for the game, and once it got over the “is it real? It’s too funny to be real!” discussion, quickly turned into a long list of choice quotes.) Here’s the first passage that did it for me:

“Woods!” You cry out “Are you primarily composed of A) grass cover, B) tree cover, or C) tractless desert?”

This would be amusing if it were just narration. What makes it hilarious is that the kid – the Small Child In Woods, pardon – is literally yelling WOODS! It’s always nice to read something that a) makes you laugh b) makes you yell WOODS! for the next few days or so. Admittedly this is because I’m a freelance writer, which has several, mostly monetary drawbacks but a few little perks, like the ability to yell WOODS! when the mood strikes you without being fired. (Also, I live in an area of New York without any woods, but that’s beside the point.)

Or how about this, which as a journalist I’m compelled to love:

At the age of eleven, you imagined for yourself the life of a photojournalist. You think now what would do in a second universe where this life was yours. You would surely use the adjective “bleak” and take photographs of dwellings during the most overcast weather. You would have people stand and look at empty areas. You would see to it that things become metaphors for other things. In conclusion, you would receive medals and garlands for your behaviour. Yes, fine living in every way.

This writeup is already getting interminably long, so I’ll refrain from quoting the whole thing outright; suffice it to say, Hennessy’s included a great deal of depth, which means a great deal of jokes, which means a great deal of you laughing. As feel-good games go, this is surely the most feelingest. VICTORY END

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