Because it uses the Varytale format rather than the more traditional parser-based approach, Bee has the opportunity to inject writing into the choice mechanism itself, and Emily Short uses this opportunity to the fullest. The choices in Bee tell us something about its PC in a way that the “>” prompt cannot. More than that, they give us clues about how we are shaping the PC. Take, for instance, the choices that appear after the PC’s father complains about having to drink chocolate milk in public school, even when he was forbidden chocolate for Lent:
The world isn’t always on our side.
Bet the other kids made fun of Father.
Having to drink chocolate milk is a pretty whiny thing to complain about.
The first option steers toward a PC who is earnestly trying to absorb her parents’ lessons and reflect them back, both to show them that she has done so and because she honestly believes it. It also reinforces the barricaded quality her family has adopted, with the good and true people on one side of the wall, and “the world” on the other. The second option reveals a PC whose immediate response is compassion. However, it also highlights her liminal place as an adolescent. (L I M I N A L, an intermediate state, phase, or condition.) She’s advanced to the age where her parents have become fallible, and she can impose upon herself uncomfortable thoughts of them as children, subject to childhood torments and humiliation. The third option, on the other hand, takes her adolescent quality in a different direction, finding the ridiculousness in her father’s complaint. In this direction, we see her separating from her parents by opposing them rather than awkwardly pitying them. And her (very funny) response of “I hear that Roman Christians were also forced to drink chocolate milk in the arena” gets a predictably chilly reception.
Other choices are noteworthy for they way they seem to be having a conversation with each other — “Possibly Lettice is not the sharpest. / Then again, she’s your only natural ally.” Some passages where there is only one choice available (at least, based on the particular attributes of my playthrough) still used that choice to provide a moment of reflection and pacing for the prose. (e.g “Ah, rhetorical terms. Now you’re on familiar ground.” in the “Are you a feminist?” scene.) Finally, I was struck by the presence of certain choices greyed-out, with reasons attached. We see this during the spelling bees — the better a speller the PC is, the more options are greyed-out — but also in more character-building ways:
While you work you make up stories in your head.
About how even Cinderella got away.
About how you were switched at birth. A bit hard on your parents, perhaps.
About becoming a designer and making more stylish clothes.
About becoming so wealthy that you could have servants.
With action-based choices, this is more or less the equivalent of the “You don’t want to do that” type of parser message from a traditional IF game. Here, however, it conveyed a slightly different message: “You don’t want to THINK that.” Thus, even as the available choices let us know how we’re shaping the PC, the game also shows us how we cannot shape her, but might be able to in a different narrative context, say if annoyance with her parents has pushed her limits.
Of course, to an extent it’s true that the choices in any style of IF game shape the character, but what’s different about Bee is that the voice of that shaping is the same as the voice of its response. It’s similar to the trade-off that happens between menu-based conversations and ASK/TELL style: the former restricts player choice, but gives greater characterization in exchange. Sometimes this trade-off is well worth it, especially in games where the prose is its own reward.
That’s certainly the case with Bee. Most every passage of the game is a pleasure to read, and a few are nothing short of sublime and beautiful. As usual for Short, she accomplishes a great deal with subtlety, understatement, and concision. Her trademark sentence fragments are sparser here than in her parser-based games (probably due to the lack of room descriptions), but used to good effect where they appear. Where she outdoes herself is in characterization. The prose feels deeply inhabited by the main character’s point of view, in a way that is clear-eyed enough to let us understand some of the things she does not, but also authentic enough that it generates sympathy not only for her situation but for those around her who create that situation. In an admirable effect, characters who start out as caricatures reveal more depth and complexity as the PC gets to know them better, just like in real life.
I could go on and on about how much I loved the writing in this game, and how I found it not just remarkably accomplished but sometimes quite moving. Instead, I’ll just nominate three more favorites, to stand for entire categories:
1) Bits of poetic diction: “You imagine what it would be like to stand in the middle of a haboob, your skin scoured by grains of sand, eyes stinging, barely able to breathe; and then, if you lived through it, dust in every crevice. If you were not killed, you would be completely sanded down, polished, perfected.”
2) Well-chosen details: Describing the documentary about North Korea to Jerome, we get a clear echo of the PC’s own dilemma: “But it wasn’t girly at all. It was like everyone being in an army. All the time.”
3) Satisfying emotional development: I followed many branches of the story, and greatly enjoyed the range of possibilities it allowed, providing a greater holistic view of “the truth” in that particular fictional world. However, I still think my favorite moment is when the PC runs away from home to find Sara. She’s confronted with things that are beyond her ken (but not ours), and must face the reality of her situation, but is comforted in a poignant, crystalline moment:
“So what am I supposed to do now?” you ask.
“Get ready,” she says. “The way I used to think of it was, I was in a chrysalis. I read things and I watched movies and looked things up on the internet, and I learned things that made me ready to break out as soon as I had wings.”
“Caterpillars are almost completely dissolved in the chrysalis,” you say. “The liquids break down their bodies into a nutritional soup. The butterfly is pretty much a different animal.”
“Yeah,” she says. “That sounds right.”
Understated, heartfelt, brilliant, and utterly beautiful, not to mention a wonderful culmination of a very long buildup. Yeah, that sounds right.
Well, I can see why this one was nominated. It’s hilarious! Now, there’s always a danger to analyzing humor, as frog-lover E.B. White once remarked. But presumably everybody reading this has already gotten to enjoy the game’s jokes, so let the batrachian carnage begin!
One technique that Dinner Bell uses to great effect is piling on the wacky, with jokes, funny concepts, and surprises sometimes stacked up several layers deep in a given turn. For instance, along with the player’s score increasing, the game goes out of its way to congratulate the player every time a food gets bagged. That’s kinda funny. The congratulation repeats exactly each time. That wouldn’t necessarily be funny, unless the method of congratulation is something ridiculous, that would seem increasingly ridiculous the more it was repeated. And, in fact, the method of congratulation is a pat on the head, which fits the bill perfectly. The pat is delivered by a head-patting robot. That’s really funny. The head-patting robot is named Pat. That’s not only funny, it actually sets the player up to type something funny, which of course gets a funny response:
You pat the head-patting robot on his little robot head. He seems confused by this bizarre shift in circumstances.
A closely related move is to make a joke, feint away from it, and then return to it with a slightly different riff, like so:
This beer is big, and brown, and furry, with claws on the ends of its powerful arms and legs. Wait, I’m thinking of a bear. This beer is a bit on the hoppy side, with woodsy undertones. Like a bunny.
It’s funny enough for the narrator to start describing a bear rather than a bear, then to catch itself, especially since “big” and “brown” could reasonably describe a beer, but “furry” throws us right off the map. Lots of writers would stop after “Wait, I’m thinking of a bear,” or would perhaps give a perfunctory description afterwards, which would amount to more or less “You see nothing special about the beer.” Polodna makes us think she’s doing that, though with a funnier version that slightly skewers beer connoisseurs. Then, the knockout punch: “Like a bunny” not only returns us to the kooky hilarity of mistaking beer for a woodland animal, but it recontextualizes “hoppy” (hoppy! how perfect is that?) and “woodsy” from the straight-seeming description that precedes it. That panache makes a good joke into a great joke.
However, amidst the jokes, there’s a thin layer of creepy, which puts the horror in “Horror/Comedy.” The game is still about 95% comedy and 5% horror, but that’s enough to keep us off balance. The eerie bits provide a background for the jokes, so that the sheen of desperation adds to their humor, and their humor illuminates the desperate moments, allowing them to take us by surprise:
When the bell goes ding, it is time to eat. It is time to eat when the bell goes ding. You cannot eat until the bell goes ding. Bell : ding :: time : eat. You understand this with every fibre of your being. Sometimes (actually, most of the time) it’s all you understand anymore.
The repetition is funny, as is the inappropriate use of analogy notation. However, “it’s all you understand anymore” is an unexpected shot of pathos, playing the PC’s dilemma straight. The picture of a prisoner, starved and experimented upon, gives an uncomfortable edge to our laughter at the jokes preceding and following it.
So Dinner Bell often serves us multiple layers at once, a few of which may be a little unsettling. However, the layering also happens across the playthrough, getting good mileage out of the comedy callback. For instance, when we first examine the oven:
This oven’s designer got tired of trying to remember if they’d left the oven on, so they invented an oven you can’t turn off. Its internal temperature is a constant 400 degrees Fahrenheit. You know this because you are omniscient all of a sudden, but only as regards this oven and the names of everyone in New Jersey.
The oven is closed. This fact is clearly visible to everyone, but you used your omniscience to discern it anyway, because why not.
The oven you can’t turn off gets a rueful grin from IF designers who know how nice it is to be able to take shortcuts around the fiddlier parts of world modeling, but it’s “you are omniscient all of a sudden” that gets the biggest laugh. We’ve all seen descriptions that introduce or draw upon knowledge that the PC couldn’t reasonably have, and lampshading it here is a great gag. As is typical for this game, that gag is topped by a couple more, building on the omniscience concept first by applying it to an unexpected context, and then by incongruously using a superpower to do something very ordinary.
That’s all terrific, but it gets even better late in the game:
Cakebot is the most sophisticated AI in, not just the building, but the tri-state area containing the building, and all people ever do is put cakes on his head. You know this because he complains to the oven sometimes, so it falls within the limits of your omniscience.
(You also know that the oven feels no sympathy whatsoever. The oven wishes people would put cakes on its head. The oven would consider that a lovely break from the daily indignities it suffers.)
This callback to the omniscience joke does the work that a callback should, playing on our familiarity with the concept to give us the feeling that the game is making a private joke with us, leveraging the relationship it’s built to intensify the comedy. On top of that, it re-lampshades the omniscience concept, and suddenly imparts comically doleful personalities to the both the Cakebot and the oven, a la Marvin the Paranoid Android. So of course, the whole thing gets paid off here:
>PUT CAKE ON OVEN
You put the cake on the oven, and the oven sighs contentedly. This is the happiest day of its life.
That’s a beautifully constructed joke, and it’s not the only one. I particularly enjoyed the gag can of snakes that turned out to have peanut brittle inside. That’s a very clever reversal. (Not to mention that it prompted me to revisit Paul F. Tompkins’ Peanut Brittle bit, the definitive comedy statement on gag peanut brittle cans.)
One more favorite: the Shiptogar easter egg. So the Shiptogar itself is awesomely absurd, and its presence reaffirms that this game is about the jokes, not the puzzles. It’s perfectly fun turning the ship in a bottle into a bottle of vinegar. However, the Shiptogar really comes into its own elsewhere:
Closer examination reveals this to be merely a child’s drawing of a sink. The drain has been hastily rendered in blue crayon, and near it a posse of scrubbing bubbles is fighting a dinosaur.
You’re not sure who you’d put money on in this battle. The dinosaur can breathe fire, but the scrubbing bubbles have the power of friendship.
You spray the sink liberally with Shiptogar, and get the weird sense that something almost imperceptible and incredibly unimportant has changed.
You’re not sure who you’d put money on in this battle. The dinosaur can breathe fire, but the scrubbing bubbles have the power of friendvinegar. Wait, friendvinegar? Never mind, you’re putting fifty bucks on that dinosaur, then.
Like every bit of prose in Dinner Bell, these responses are funny and silly, but the situation itself is 100% prime IF humor, similar to the linguistic deformations of Nord And Bert, Ad Verbum, and the Leather Goddesses Of Phobos T-Remover. It’s the kind of joke that plays to IF’s strengths pulling off deftly what would be impossible in film and rather more tedious in straight prose.
Dinner Bell‘s help text says, “most of this game’s entertainment dollar value lies in examining things and reading the dumb jokes.” That sells it a bit short — there’s lots of humor to be found beyond object descriptions, and the jokes are pretty smart. What’s true, though, is that this game is not about plot, setting, character, or puzzles. It’s about the jokes, and lucky for us, they’re excellent. This riotous game deserves every writing accolade it gets.
I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life — and right now is one of them — when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success. So given this game‘s concept, it was pretty much automatic that it was going to speak to me on an emotional level, and it did. Sometimes that happened directly because of the writing. Sometimes it happened despite the writing.
Before I dive in, though, I want to acknowledge a couple of things. Anonymous obliquely suggests that elements of this game may be autobiographical, and the choice to remain anonymous strengthens this impression. The details of the story are very painful, and must have been difficult to write — even if it’s not autobiographical at all, it’s clearly a cri de coeur, and an effective one. I recognize that sometimes strong emotion can get in the way of high gloss, so it always feels awkward to start making persnickety comments about a work that’s so personal. Nevertheless, my charge here is to review the writing of these four games, so that’s what I’ll do. Happily, the author seems both self-aware and open to criticism, at least based on the comments that appear in the game’s menu system.
On to the analysis. The game feels to me like the work of a talented writer who has not yet found his voice. (I say “his” — I don’t know whether the author is male or female, but I’ll stick with male since the PC seems to be male, though I’m not even certain about that.) The tone shifts from one response to the next, sometimes rather dramatically:
You’ve been better.
There is nothing to hear except, if there is such a thing, the sound of absence.
The carpet is the colour of sand, as though the room has become a tide line, washed clean of its cockleshell memories and mermaid-hair dreams.
I have a preference here. The first response is excellent — punchy but understated, getting across the character’s grief well enough (given the context) but with a wry grit, and not a trace of self-indulgence. The second one reaches a little farther, and works a little less. Saying “if there is such a thing” undermines what impact the “sound of absence” metaphor might have had. The third response, however, goes the other way — instead of hedging or pulling back, it doubles down on melodrama, which if anything is even worse. If the sentence had ended after “tide line”, I’d have liked it well enough, though I might have balked a bit at even that level of intensity being injected into — let’s face it — beige carpeting. However, when I was presented with “cockleshell memories and mermaid-hair dreams”… whew. In those moments, I recoiled from the narrative voice, because it was hitting me with the emotional equivalent of a sudden earsplitting sound.
These tonal shifts are jarring, but I was a bit grateful for them, because I knew that even if I was wincing at an error or an ill-chosen word, something powerful and true was probably around the corner. My transcript is peppered with comments like “that hits home”, “quite good”, “this is getting to me”, and so forth. Anonymous displays a keen observational eye about the emotional resonances of objects and places, like the boxed-up books that are “like meeting old friends you forgot you cared for” when you reopen them.
There is some deeply affecting writing in this game, and some problematic writing too, sometimes even in the same description:
From last Christmas, you seem to remember, another lifetime. Like all Celine’s gifts, it came exquisitely wrapped – black and gold, perhaps, to match the mask itself. 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.
“Another lifetime” is a bit cliched but still speaks to a potent truth — from within grief, remembering something like a joyful Christmas gift exchange, it feels almost ridiculous, like an implausible story about another person. The observation about the wrapping is superb, building a lovable and somewhat quirky character trait into Celine while enhancing the radiance of the memory. Then we swing back down rapidly into bereavement, which again is quite realistic — the mind keeps returning to the sources of its pain.
Best of all is the topper — saying Celine was not only just as beautiful as the wrapping, but just as temporary too… what a gut punch. That “apparently” does a great job of conveying the PC’s bitter surprise, or rather it would do, if not for the fact that the line is badly punctuated, which drains it of much of the impact it might have had. Think about an actor reading that sentence aloud, using the commas as guides for where to pause. If you’re anything like me, you’re hearing one bizarre line reading, because for some reason the commas emphasize the word “so”, which is “so” clearly not the key word in that sentence. I regret coming over all dogmatic about this, but to my mind there is only one correct way to punctuate that sentence: “And so, apparently, did you.” That would have had a brutal impact, rather than the muffled (albeit still painful) landing of the sentence as written.
Something I particularly enjoyed about Eurydice’s writing was its use of multiple responses for the same action:
You remember the first time you invited John and Celine to come to dinner. You can see them now on the doorstep, John slightly behind, handsome and distinguished in a military-style coat with gold buttons and braiding, Celine, in black just like always, holding out to you a hand-tied bouquet of flowers the colour of her lipstick, and smiling.
Like everyone else in the room, he looks washed out and tired, a lesser version of himself.
This sort of thing happens many places in the game, and it conveys a wonderful effect of progressing thoughts. It’s not just with object descriptions, either — a variety of actions in the game garner different responses when they are repeated. This sounds like it should be frustrating, and in some games it is. (I’m looking in your direction, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.) Here, though, it ends up feeling quite natural, like pushing past an emotional barrier to get something done. It’s admirable, too — I find it challenging enough to write engaging responses for all major objects and actions in an IF game, but to write more than one of each is impressive indeed, especially when they work this well.
Finally, I suppose this is more about the design than the writing, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the way the lyre is handled. I was surprised to find when I reached an ending that the lyre was a Wishbringer object — a magic shortcut through puzzles that is convenient but not necessary. However, where Wishbringer‘s magic was included to make the game more child-friendly with adjustable difficulty, the lyre here is doing more interesting work. Essentially, Eurydice is a magical realist story that allows you to adjust the ratio of magic to realism. My knowledge of modern IF is nowhere near as current or comprehensive as it once was, so perhaps this has been done before, but I’ve never seen it. I’m intrigued by the possibilities it offers, because it leverages a strength unique to interactive storytelling. I hope the game inspires other authors (or this same author — how would I know?) to continue exploring this promising vein.
So it turns out there’s this unfortunate consequence to not paying attention, which is that you don’t know about stuff. Case in point: there is someone called Porpentine, who has written a number of IF games in different formats, as well as poetry, fiction, essays, and various other work. I had never heard of her prior to opening this game, probably because I am pretty detached from the IF scene nowadays. In any case, she apparently has quite a fan base, or at least this game does, judging from its 5 XYZZY nominations, including one for Best Game. However, I am sorry to say that I am not among its fans.
Part of this comes down to taste. I’ve mentioned in the past that I have trouble relating to games that get too abstract. When metaphor piles upon metaphor, with nothing concrete underpinning them, the whole thing tends to kind of slide off me. When the base scenario is a futuristic metal cube (or hamster cage, or something) with no exit and no explanation of why you’re imprisoned there, and we launch from that into (for instance) hallucinatory dreamscapes of invasion by it’s-not-clear-what, or maybe you’re the one doing the invading (it’s not clear), while inanimate objects and landscape features talk to you, only to be interrupted by a sub-hallucination of a tranquil tea party… well, my mind starts asking why I should care, and what is the point exactly? I know there are people who really dig this kind of thing. I’m just not one of them, despite my nagging feeling that this distate will prevent me from hanging out with the cool kids.
That’s not to say that I need metaphor-free quest plots where everything is spelled out in big block letters. Some of my very favorite writers can be so bizarre and elliptical that it is sometimes almost impossible to detect what they’re on about — Emily Dickinson, Tori Amos, and Stevie Nicks come to mind. Yes, these are writers of poetry and lyrics, where perhaps a great remove is easier to tolerate, but I’ve enjoyed many a surreal IF game too — Blue Chairs, For A Change, Shrapnel, and so forth. I think it comes down to trust. I can let my mind and emotions fall backward into some pretty strange territory as long as I trust that I’m in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, my trust was immediately blown, right out of the gate, by this game’s opening text:
One morning at dawn the nurse shook him awake because his sobs were being heard in the next room. Once he was awake he could hear that not only was the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still
I looked at this and thought, “Best writing? But… it’s incoherent!” Even setting aside the fact that the total lack of commas makes the whole thing feel extremely plodding, it’s just nonsensical. Taking out some of the extraneous stuff, I get this sentence: “Not only was the patient but the dogs had also been threatened.” It simply does not parse.
Then a bit more of the passage revealed itself, and I saw that it was not by Porpentine at all, but rather by someone called Kenzaburo Oe. Since I was disengaged from the story anyway at this point, I googled the name to see if he is a real person. Yep, he’s a real person who, uh, seems to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Say wha? Now I was really confused. Maybe it made sense in the original Japanese, and was badly translated? After further googling I determined that no, it made sense in the original English, before it was mangled. Here’s Oe’s original sentence, from his novella The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away:
Once he was awake he could hear that not only the patient next door but the two hundred dogs kept in the hospital courtyard for use in the laboratory had also been threatened by his sobbing and clearly were howling still
If I boil this one as I did the other one, I get: “Not only the patient but the dogs had also been threatened.” That’s a sentence that works just fine, because it doesn’t have an errant “was” inserted between “only” and “the”. The entire passage is Oe’s work, except for the “was”, which I have to assume came from Porpentine. He Himself is about someone who (maybe) has cancer, so perhaps the idea here is that the “was” is the cancer that infects the sentence? It certainly kills the thing stone dead. Having left the story almost immediately to do this much research, I was not inclined to be so charitable. To me it seemed like a fundamental error, one which bespoke a basic disinterest in comprehensible language, coming as it does in the crucial first sentences of the game. While the rest of howling dogs did in fact parse (well, most of it), I didn’t find much to contradict that belief.
Take, for instance, the description of the central room, one of the most frequently repeated passages of the game:
A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.
The activity room is in the north wall. The lavatory entrance, west, next to the trash disposal and the nutrient dispensers. The sanity room is in the east wall.
So far so good with the first part — two terse Emily Shortesque sentence fragments sketch a grim, depressing cell. Their sparseness is in keeping with the spartan accommodations. However, things start to go wrong in the second part. Two rooms are described as “in” walls. In? How can a room be in a wall, when it’s walls that define rooms? The image I got was of an indentation in the wall, though when I followed the leads, the game treated them as separate locations. That suggested to me that although the use of the word “in” had to be intentional (it happens twice, after all), it was not used to create a pervasive effect as much as to inject alienating and unfamiliar diction for its own sake.
Between these two sentences is another fragment, but this one doesn’t work nearly so well as the first ones. The short appositive and the long prepositional phrase that follow the subject had me waiting for a verb. “The lavatory entrance, yes, yes… what about it?” Then I thought perhaps that this was a case of a word wrongly removed rather than wrongly inserted. “The lavatory entrance is west…” would have worked just fine. It was a little bit funny that the lavatory is the only space grand enough to rate an actual entrance, rather than just being “in” the wall, but I don’t think the humor was intentional. For that matter, I found very little humor of any kind in howling dogs. This is a dour game, which is fine as an artistic choice, but puts further pressure on the language to live up to the apparently Very Serious intentions behind it.
So that I don’t spend this entire review excoriating and picking apart the game’s writing, I will note that there were some striking parts. As I said, I’m not much for the highly abstract, but when the action neared the ground, I found it pretty compelling. The murder scene is gripping and dramatic — I particularly liked the detached observation about the knot. The advice on how best to be assassinated was clever, and did a good job of cueing the right word in the “giant wodge of text” scene. I’ll note, though, that it’s only thanks to the “howling dogs spoilers” text file that I knew there was such a thing as a “right word” in that scene, which suggests that the game’s design fails to stand up on its own. I certainly would have given up on it without that file. For that matter, it led me to the “correct” ending (the one that isn’t marked “false terminus”), which was my favorite part of the game, particularly the “gap” effect.
That scene was the closest I came to an emotional connection with howling dogs, but by that time it was far too late — I had already checked out. I could cite many more places where the writing falls down, but I think I’ve made my point, so instead I’ll end by stepping out of my prescribed area, because I think this is important. Game designers, if you want to make a game with a repetitive structure, in which progress depends on returning again and again to the same mechanic, DO NOT frontload that mechanic with arbitrary, unrewarding actions. When I found out I had to follow the whole “nutrient dispensers” path each and every time I wanted to see the next scene, I groaned aloud. Long ago, Graham Nelson wrote a Bill of Player’s Rights, one of which was “Not to need to do boring things for the sake of it.” howling dogs really should have heeded that advice — tedium adds neither fun nor gravitas to a story. In fact, I could say the same thing for layers of abstraction and self-consciously serious prose.