Emma Joyce on Best Setting

Emma Joyce has written a handful of small IF games, one of which once won a contest by virtue of being the only entrant. She has also written a number of reviews for IF games, including some of last year’s semi-official XYZZY reviews for the Best Story nominees.

The Best Setting finalists were Choice of the Deathless, Horse Master, Robin & Orchid, their angelical understanding and Coloratura.

Choice of the Deathless (Max Gladstone)

One of the most important parts of any urban fantasy work is the juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastical, the ways the supernatural elements interact with the familiar, everyday aspects of the setting. Choice of the Deathless delivers on this front, featuring a protagonist who has student loan debts from their school of magic and manifests a spirit knife to open moving boxes because they packed all their scissors and knives. There’s a stat that tracks how much sleep you’re getting, a number of the early choices deal with budgeting and whether to go out with your co-workers after work… and the whole story is framed as the protagonist recovering their memories after being nearly killed in a battle with an unspeakably powerful enemy in an unearthly demon city. The writing style itself backs this up, occasionally dropping from its high-flown portentous fantasy style into a more casual vernacular. (“Around you rises the demon-city Akargath, warped crystal and flame, thorns and razor wire. And this is the nice part of town.”)

It’s funny, but it’s not solely a joke; the world gives the impression of being well thought-out, and there are some interesting and unusual world-building decisions that have gone into it. I was particularly intrigued by the handling of souls, or rather, soul–it seems, in this reality, to be not an individual item, but a substance of which you may have a greater or lesser quantity. Soul is also a currency of sorts–you can gamble with bits of soul, and soul is also how you’re meant to pay off your loan–which makes for a unique take on the concept of soul-selling.

All that being said, what can be seen in the free portion of the game amounts to little more than a tantalizing glimpse, as the game itself warns you before you begin; it doesn’t stand on its own any more than the preview for a movie does. Which is fine, but it does mean that, not having spent the money for the full version, I can’t speak to the worldbuilding in any great detail. I like what I’ve seen, but what I’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg; the rest could be great, but it could also turn out to be full of holes, for all I know. Still, what was there at least succeeded in making me want to see more of it.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is, essentially, an unusual take on one of those horror stories about scientists trapped in a small space with an otherworldly threat; the small space, in this case, is a research vessel at sea. The vessel is apparently based on a real ship, with only minor modifications, which lends a certain concreteness to the surroundings, each room serving a clear and logical function. Even the ship’s location at sea is a specific real-world place, the Chile Triple Junction (although one would probably have to be a serious oceanic geography buff to figure that out without reading the creator’s notes).

What really makes the setting stand out, though, is not the physical aspect of the ship, but the way it looks through the (entirely metaphorical) eyes of the alien protagonist. The Aqueosity differs from humans in its sensory perceptions–it perceives the world primarily in terms of color and music, and it can see colors outside the range of human vision–but also in its whole frame of reference. It isn’t accustomed to man-made environments; really, it’s not accustomed to existing on the physical plane at all. It doesn’t know what, for example, an oven or a washing machine is. With the Aqueosity as the main point of connection with the setting, the familiar often becomes completely unrecognizable, a disorienting effect which lingers even once the player works out what they’re seeing.

The game’s way of making completely mundane locations (kitchens, for example) unfamiliar and nightmarish makes its setting stand out, and the research and care put into the underlying reality and the internal consistency of the Aqueosity’s perceptions contribute to its effectiveness. It may not be the only IF game to defamiliarize a relatively mundane setting by taking a non-human perspective, but it’s certainly one of the best executions of the idea that I’ve seen.

Horse Master (Tom McHenry)

To be honest, Horse Master‘s brand of viscerally gross dystopia (a popular subgenre these days, it seems) is not my cup of tea. Even so, I have to admit that the world it creates is vivid and unusual. I have definitely never before seen a dystopia where one’s social standing is determined by one’s ability to raise a genetically modified vaguely horse-like creature (with mane-tentacles?), have it compete in a show, and then kill it.

Put like that, it sounds pretty absurd, and, well, it is. But the game sketches out the larger society only vaguely and instead focuses on the squalid details of the protagonist’s daily life, and that makes it a bit easier to swallow. The PC has been raised believing in the importance of the Horse Master competition and doesn’t find it at all remarkable, and by the end of the game their situation has deteriorated such that they don’t have the luxury of contemplating the bigger picture, or really anything beyond immediate survival.

As far as atmosphere and immediate surroundings go, well, “squalid” about sums it up; the game doesn’t shy away from the gory details of the PC’s deteriorating health (due to a drug addiction), sharing a small apartment with an animal (which would be bad enough with a regular horse, never mind one that seems to have been genetically modified to be 100% more gross), or, once the PC is evicted, living on the street. The descriptions of the PC sleeping in horse-piss-soaked garbage as their teeth are beginning to fall out were striking, if nothing else. And the Horse Master competition itself, once it finally arrives, is an effective mix of the familiar (to anyone who has a passing knowledge of real-world horse shows, at least) and the shocking, escalating to the moment when the PC must kill the creature they have been raising from infancy and devoting huge amounts of time and resources to caring for.

All in all, it’s a memorable and unusual setting, and in some ways a well-drawn one; it’s just a highly unpleasant world to spend any time in, and that’s not something I personally enjoy in fiction.

Robin & Orchid (Ryan Veeder, Emily Boegheim)

Robin & Orchid‘s setting is by far the most mundane of any of this year’s Best Setting nominees, but in a way, that’s what makes it stand out. The church where the game takes place is clearly based on actual places which the writers have personal knowledge of and affection for, and it feels very real. (Well, as someone who has never attended a church, I am perhaps not the best judge of its authenticity, but it is, at least, believable.)

The impressive thing here is that the setting here feels like it belongs to a living community. Interactive fiction is full of beautiful settings that feel empty, whether or not they’re supposed to, but Robin & Orchid manages to avoid this. Technically, the church is empty–it’s closed for the night, and Robin and Orchid are supposed to be the only ones there–but the presence of the rest of the congregation lingers all the same.

This is largely thanks to the fact that the basic descriptions of rooms and items are supplemented by extensive notes from Casey, who is a member of the church and as such has a lot of stories to share. Some of these stories, such as the string of anecdotes relating to an amusing Nativity-play mishap, have some relevance to the game’s puzzles, but many are just flavor. For example, of the Sunday School room, he says

One very important thing to know is that the Sunday School room is a chokepoint between the storage hallway and the rest of the basement. This is important to know for fire safety reasons, but also for when you’re playing Romans and Christians, because the Romans can camp at that door and just pick off the Christians as they come around the corner. This is one reason we’ve switched to playing Sardines instead, in recent years.

Is this knowledge ever going to be useful in the game? No, not in the slightest, but it does give an idea of how people interact with the environment, and builds up the sense that this isn’t a beautifully-constructed dollhouse, but a place where quite a lot of people spend quite a lot of time. Essentially, Casey’s notes bring the church to life.

I admit I’m not sure whether I would have picked Robin & Orchid‘s setting as my favorite of the year just as a matter of personal preference (I am, at heart, more of a genre fiction person), but it was certainly well-executed, and did a very deft job of creating something that felt like a living environment without actually having to implement a whole bunch of people to live in it.

their angelical understanding (Porpentine)

The world of their angelical understanding feels like a dream. It operates on a logic a little removed from that of the real world; space shifts, physical laws are malleable, and everything stands for something else. As such, it relies heavily on atmosphere, and its world makes sense more on an emotional than a logical level. This dreamscape can be grotesque at times–the house full of disembodied hands comes to mind–but it also has a certain beauty, from the melancholy peacefulness of the monastery where the game begins to the chilly opulence of the casino where it ends.

Porpentine has a gift, at least as far as I’ve seen in this game and in howling dogs, for evoking a setting through economical use of detail–these games don’t tend to have paragraphs upon paragraphs of description or exposition, but the details that do appear are carefully chosen and usually effective. This applies both to physical description (e.g. ‘Moths cluster at opaque windows, nibbling on tarnished light”) and worldbuilding (I particularly liked the coins that come in sets of three, so that every transaction must have three beneficiaries, and the city zoned for casinos so that every home is required to have at least a slot machine, for legal reasons). Every now and then there’s a sentence that falls flat, and some of the intentionally repetitive bits go on just a tad too long and lose their punch (the aforementioned disembodied hand segment is probably the worst offender there), but overall these things make up a minority of the content.

The worst that could really be said of the setting is that it’s not entirely that cohesive–the monastery, journey through the wilderness, and New Heart City segments feel a little disjoint from each other–but the writing style and the protagonist’s ongoing emotional journey serve well enough to tie it together.

All in all, it’s a vivid and interesting world, and unlike some similarly surreal and disturbing works of IF, it has enough moments of beauty and humor in it to make the unpleasant parts worth getting through.

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