Xyzzymposium 2014: Gabriel Murray on Best Story

The Xyzzymposium, formerly the Pseudo-Official XYZZY Reviews, is a series examining the shortlist-nominated games of the previous XYZZY Awards, tackling nominees in terms of their category. A lot of the critical writing in the IF world comes in the forms of general reviews; that’s great, but we wanted to see more in-depth writing that considered games through specific foci.

The XYZZYs have no cash prizes or shiny trophies, no red-carpet parties; all we really offer is the respect of your peers, and a slightly more prominent mark in the history of the medium. Both of these become a little more concrete if they’re combined with in-depth critical attention. The Xyzzymposium isn’t intended to be a triumpal march; we’re not here to lavish praise on anointed champions. The purpose of the Xyzzymposium is to show that we’re taking a work seriously enough to wrestle with it.

This year, we’re rolling out the 2014 Xyzzymposium to coincide with first-round voting for the 2015 XYZZYs. We hope you enjoy the articles – and if it helps you think about the sort of thing you want to see in this year’s nominees, so much the better.

Gabriel Murray is a speculative fiction writer and reviewer.  His writing and reviews can be found in Strange Horizons, GlitterShip, and Ideomancer and his previous and current IF reviews can be found at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting.

The Best Story finalists for 2014 were 80 Days, Eidolon, the uncle who works for nintendo, Venus Meets Venus , and With Those We Love Alive.

As XYZZY categories go, Best Story is an interesting beast because it’s distinguished from Best Writing.  The distinction is a wide gradient rather than a sharp line: for the purposes of this review, I’m defining writing as a matter of craft–word choice, sentence arrangement, and other fine aspects of prose and verse–and story as a matter of construction–narrative coherence, narrative momentum, pacing, characterization, and satisfactory interactivity, among other things.  I find it impossible to talk about one without talking about the other, so the difference will be in the focus of my reviews, not the discrete subject matter.

However, story in IF remains an intimidatingly broad concept.  Here’s a quick list of a few elements of storytelling (as I see it) that I’ve incorporated into my evaluation of each piece:

Structure: How are the basic building-blocks of the story put together?  Is it linear or branching, or a hybrid?  Where are the points of choice in the story, if they exist?  How long is the story?  Are all of these things well-chosen for the kind of story that’s being told?

Pacing: At what pace is story spooled out over the course of the game, if story and game are not synonymous?  How much storytelling and story text is there to consume vs. the length of the game?  How is information revealed over the course of the game about the story and characters?  How do player choice and game difficulty impact the accessibility of story content?

Worldbuilding: If the game takes place in a fantastical setting, how does it develop this setting over the course of the story?  How and where is world information revealed?  How deep/lifelike is this world?   (The same questions apply for a familiar or unfamiliar non-fictional setting!  Worldbuilding is a major component of IF whether fantastical or not, but approaches may be different.)

Characters and characterization: Does the placement of characters in the narrative serve the narrative, and more broadly, the game?  Are these characters well-developed?  Is the development of these characters contingent upon player choice?

Player agency and immersion: How much impact can the player have on the course and outcome of the story?  How is this agency or lack thereof deployed for effect?  Is there any tradeoff between player agency and a coherent storyline?

Emotional impact: What (if any) emotional effect did this game have on me as a player, or is it likely to have on other players?  What is the general emotional palette of the game?  Is it effective?  Is it helped or hindered by the interactive nature of the work?

These aren’t a rubric by any means, but rather a set of questions to ask when describing the shape of an IF game’s story.  So without further ado–

80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

80 Days is a massive, polished piece of professional IF adapted from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.  The premise is simple: you play as Jean Passepartout, Phileas Fogg’s faithful (and many other things too, depending on how you play him) valet, and accompany your master on his wagered trip around the world.  The gameplay is simple in concept, too: you buy and sell goods and, most of all, choose the routes you’re going to take on your journey.  The result is much less straightforward.  Depending on your choices, you can find yourself embroiled in revolution, piracy, or mutiny; you can befriend air captains and saboteurs, kiss Death in New Orleans, or even voyage to the North Pole on a second playthrough.  The primary limitation is that in the normal course of a first playthrough, you cannot die: only fail.

The foremost success, in my opinion, of 80 Days’ storytelling is the sense of whirlwind adventure it manages to evoke.  It’s hard not to feel swept away on Passepartout and Fogg’s journey, particularly since the clock is always ticking, you’re always moving somewhere, and you’ve got what adds up to a gigantic plethora of choices.  It’s a functionally scripted game that simulates the feeling of an open-world sandbox.  You’re engaged in a race, but you’re also involved in exploration–particularly when the world doesn’t always resemble the world with which you’re familiar.  Paired with a lively and unobtrusive soundtrack, it’s easy to sink into the spirit of the wager, into excitement, into a desire to win; unlike other games which take multiple failures before a success as a given, it’s difficult not to feel like you owe it to yourself and Fogg to make it around the damned world in eighty days if you have to sell the shoes off your feet.  That kind of momentum, that immersion, makes it hard not to love the game.

Passepartout himself is subtly characterized for a balance between player choice and distinctive character voice.  You’re confronted with a new choice every few paragraphs, but each is within the basic spectrum of Passepartout’s actions; you get the basic sense of who Passepartout is even as you decide what he does.  The result is a game where identification with the player character is encouraged and desirable if unnecessary. It’s possible to like Passepartout without identifying personally with him–but it’s unlikely that you wouldn’t.  The player’s relationship with Fogg is slightly contingent on their sympathy with Passepartout–Fogg himself can be difficult, proud, stubborn, and mechanically useless, but it’s tough not to get attached to him with Passepartout’s implicit loyalty (or extremely attached to him, in the case of this player and the North Pole mission).

Over 750,000 words go into 80 Days’ written content, and most of this is development of the game’s world.  While you identify with Passepartout and you get to know Fogg as the story progresses, 80 Days’ world is its main character.  Some familiar steampunk attributes are present, such as the machine-making Artificers that crop up repeatedly throughout the game, airships, and walking cities.  However, each is individually built into the history and region to which it’s tied–there’s no generic cogs-and-gears to be found here.  Fantastical technology takes different forms in different places, such as the animal-automata of the Caribbean and the unique cold-adapted machines of the Arctic.  And 80 Days  is threaded all over with postcolonialism–both in a Doylist sense, in the game’s overall outlook and characterization of various regions, and a Watsonian one, in the literal anti-colonial resistance shown by many of these steampunk elements.  Sinking into the world over and over again is one of the pleasures of replaying 80 Days.

The structure of the game is evenly distributed: content is sprinkled all over the various routes the player can take, and as it’s not written in a specific dramatic arc from beginning to end, it can be experienced in more or less any order.  The exception to this is the North Pole storyline, which is written with a definite arc of dramatic progression from Cambridge to Canada and features a harrowing (and delightful!) climax.  Several miniature storylines–such as one involving a murder mystery aboard a ship–follow a similar progression.  Overall, though, the game branches in many different unpredictable ways and the pieces of story have to function in any order with just about anything preceding or following them.  It’s remarkable how coherent the storylines seem on replay despite the entirely differing ordering of events on each playthrough.

Overall, 80 Days is a game that maintains its driving momentum and sense of whimsy in spite of its remarkable size; it’s transportive in the purest sense.

Eidolon (A.D. Jansen)

Eidolon is an extensive Twine piece with an almost young-adult, fairytale feel.  The story takes a little while to reveal its direction, but it primarily involves being spirited away to a surreal land by a frightening, amoral elf princess who requires of you certain, folkloric tasks (impossible and reminiscent of narratives like “Scarborough Fair”) before she’ll restore you to your life.  The game operates with an impressive amount of open-world-style exploration considering the Twine platform, which as a result lends itself to puzzles and puzzle-solving.

Eidolon is a fairly linear game: most of its interactivity is in exploration, especially early on, and puzzle-solving.  Some of this is likely a common function of the Twine format.  Some of this may be deliberate–you are a prisoner of sorts for most of the game, and toyed with and tormented the entire time.  As far as simulating the sense of being the plaything of a mercurial, fairy creature that may not have your best interests at heart, the interactivity level of Eidolon might be just the ticket.  Overall, it adds to the shuttered feeling of the game.

The game is structured with a very long introduction.  There’s a great deal of clicking around in the protagonist’s house that goes on before the main plot of the game is introduced, much less any puzzle-solving.  This is a peculiar choice on the author’s part, as it’s misleading to the rest of the game; without enough early clues as to the game’s real nature, it comes off like it’s going to be an at-home or perhaps neighborhood adventure about one’s home being transported to another world.  More practically, a low level of interactivity early on for a game with an eventual high level of interactivity comes off like an extended cutscene: perhaps unfairly, as a game with low interactivity throughout does not.  All the same, Eidolon’s early pacing undercuts the weird and otherworldly mood built up by the rest of the game.

Eidolon’s worldbuilding is its most compelling strength.  It doesn’t draw on any recognizable mythology for its elven, fairy creatures or their kingdom, except the mythologies which render them as fickle and dangerous–rather, it creates imagery that’s more reminiscent of weird fiction and surrealism than of Child ballads and Lord Dunsany.  At one point the player has to find one key among many pins that skewer an array of moths to the walls, and as usual with Eidolon’s puzzles, it requires a lot of careful word-hunting.  The game does a great deal with light and dark–fitting for something that starts out with changes to the night sky–and, particularly given the elf world Eidolon’s own approach to stories and storytelling, creates the illusion of a world inconceivably alien to our own, in a beautiful and uncanny manner.

Overall the strongest emotional takeaway I had from Eidolon was nothing particularly otherworldly or strange: in fact, it was frustration.  I don’t mean that as a criticism, and it wasn’t frustration with the game or with the puzzles: rather, it was a sense of cosmic unfairness that infected the game partly due to my interactions with the elf girl.  It was hard not to feel picked-on, toyed-with, and generally the object of the cosmic whims of things much more powerful than myself–an appropriate emotion for dealing with the fair folk, one should think.  The elf girl was enormously unfair at all times to the player, and that visceral feeling came through to the point that I would call it her establishing feature.

Overall, Eidolon is an interesting, frustrating–in good and bad ways–piece with a lovely and vivid world.

the uncle who works for nintendo (Michael Lutz)

the uncle who works for nintendo is a Twine horror piece with light elements of exploration and time management.  Your best friend invites you to stay the night at her house and play video games: with the later revelation that her uncle, who works for Nintendo, is coming to visit at some point during the night.  Sooner or later you realize that something is terribly, desperately wrong.  What you do about it is up to you.

The game’s greatest strength–and overpowering mood–is that it is excruciatingly suspenseful.  Part of this is because it makes you wait.  Nothing overtly unsettling happens at first; nothing seems amiss in the household, and mentions of the uncle seem exaggerated but not sinister.  This changes slowly as you spend time with your friend, notice that her parents seem to be behaving strangely and that so, after a while, does she, and fail to learn anything of use about the titular uncle.  Even so, the game doesn’t start tipping into outright horror until a while into the story, when (optionally) you discover what’s dreadfully wrong with her parents, or when the uncle arrives.  The minimalism makes it terrifying.  You never see, visually or verbally, the face of the uncle that works for Nintendo, and you don’t need to.  The exact nature of the uncle is scarier when it’s unknown and featured in ending text like “You were found by the uncle that works for Nintendo.”  But it’s not just the game’s leaving the uncle up to one’s imagination that makes it scary–it’s the slow drip-drip pace as the clock ticks on, making use of an oft-unused feature of Twine.

The player character is a child–a boy child or a girl child, depending on the player’s choice, which invites identification.  Identification seems to provide the intended storytelling experience: the player character is written as one of many, or any, kids who grew up with early-generation pre-Internet Nintendo and all the urban legends that came with it.  Many of us know this generation and know this child; many of us were this child.  The game would suffer, in my opinion, from a player’s lack of familiarity with this–<i>the uncle who works for nintendo</i> is a game that depends on nostalgia, and on cultural familiarity, and on purposely poisoning that nostalgia to make you think.  Having that background allows you to sink easily and comfortably into the setting, making it more disturbing when it’s undermined: not having it might undercut the horror.

Structurally the game allows the player to do more or less what they want to do within the house once it begins the time countdown, which allows for the number of branching endings that it has.  The player can be passive and wait for the uncle to come, or try to flee from the uncle, or leave, or leave after talking things through with their friend–providing access to the basic array of endings, some of which are horrific, one of which is uplifting.  The game lends itself to a sense of inevitability, since most of the actions make no difference to the ultimate outcome of the game: as long as the player is still in the house at midnight, the uncle will come.  This is very effective for horror, as horror is still the uncle who works for nintendo’s main object.  It’s very confining and constraining–there’s something very claustrophobic about the game’s structure, combined with its spareness of prose.

The grounding themes of the story are ambitious and I entirely failed to pick up on them the first time I played the game.  In fact, as full disclosure: I thought this game was about child sexual abuse and found the resulting interpretation utterly horrifying.  In fact, according to the creator, the game has to do with the toxicity of gamer culture and, by association, Gamergate–which is also a scary subject, but not at all what I got out of it the first time around.  This allegory is an interesting one, particularly depending on the gender of PC you choose when you start the game; it presents toxic gamer culture as a sort of seductive, devouring beast to which people sacrifice their friends, emphasizing a divisive, diabolical aspect.  It certainly provides food for thought when considering how these cultural trends catch on and wreak their destructive impact.

the uncle that works for nintendo is a deeply unsettling game–downright scary–and also uncomfortable and skeptical of the very nostalgia that makes it possible, which renders it a very effective story indeed.

Venus Meets Venus (kaleidofish)

Venus Meets Venus is a shortish, very linear Twine game chronicling the beginning and end of a romantic relationship between a cisgender woman, Lynn–the POV character–and a transgender woman, Macy.

Venus Meets Venus is written in second-person present tense, like many games, though it asserts itself to be “a chronicle of all your past fuck-ups.”  For the most part, it sticks to conventional spelling and grammar, though sometimes it drops to lowercase to denote drunkenness or emotional desperation.  The tense choice is interesting, given this: presumably the story is a pained play-by-play of the narrator’s relationship with Macy, her romantic interest, told in present tense because she experiences her mistakes over and over again in present tense.  If you keep this in mind while you read, the experience is even more painful, because what’s going to happen is prefigured.  Inhabiting the mind of a person who’s beating themselves up over past mistakes over and over in lifelike detail is very different from inhabiting the mind of a person who’s living their mistakes in the present.  The effect is compelling from the get-go.

Lynn is a very distinct, very uncomfortable protagonist: it’s quickly easy to see why she refers to herself as a “fuck-up” from the beginning.  She’s an alcoholic with an addiction to easy, drunken casual sex with women from bars.  She’s cut with a deep self-loathing that makes itself obvious every time she talks about herself as not being “girlfriend material” and is unable to envision a future with Macy because it would have herself in it.  Macy, on the other hand, is a calm, sincere, emotionally stable person willing to take a risk on Lynn despite everything, who expects Lynn to reject her for being trans.  The opposites-attract nature of Lynn and Macy’s relationship does sometimes make it come off more like a parable than an individual story: each of them, in her way, has a very extreme personality, for all that each of them is certainly an individual person.

The trajectory of the story isn’t unpredictable, but it is sweet.  Lynn and Macy go through the process of meeting, getting to know one another, having unresolved sexual tension, finally dating, slowly progressing through Macy’s sexual boundaries, Lynn screwing up, Macy breaking up with her, and the two of them getting back together.  It’s an arc not unfamiliar to anyone who’s consumed enough traditional romantic arcs, which is a bit of a contrast for something that touts itself as not being a love story–but of course it means that it’s not a love story, it’s Lynn’s and Macy’s story.  It’s a very effective formula, too, and the beginning puts the ending genuinely in question.

The game takes place in a very particular, largely unspoken setting–that of semi-collegiate queer life.  Lynn alludes to being in college when she first meets Macy and she lives in a town where, simultaneously, she can feel ashamed of holding hands with a woman in public near a coffeeshop and still find a bar where she can go home with a different woman every night if she wants to.  The specific culture of queer college life backgrounds Venus Meets Venus significantly, especially when Lynn becomes obsessed with the notion of becoming a trans ally: something that wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone in quite the same way outside of a town with marches and meetings.  The resonance of this setting is strong for anyone with a similar background, but it’s also so carefully sketched that it’s unobtrusive.

Venus Meets Venus is an interesting portrait of a relationship in hyperlink form, with a heavy emphasis on characterization.

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

With Those We Love Alive is a long, epic Twine game featuring the day-to-day life of a main character who lives in a brutal, surreal city and works in the service of a frightening, alien Empress.  It concerns themes like love and complicity and permits a high level of unorthodox player character customization in return for demanding an unorthodox level of player involvement.

This is a story that begins with “Please remember: nothing you can do is wrong”: because as you learn, some of the things which you can do–or not do–can seem very wrong indeed.  The story’s title is drawn from the Bhagavad Gita: “Better to live on beggar’s bread/with those we love alive/than taste their blood in rich feasts spread/and guiltily survive”.  These are the fundamental dilemmas that With Those We Love Alive concerns itself with: integrity over conformity for safety, complicity with oppression and bloodshed for survival, togetherness and compromise versus individuality and vulnerability.  The primary emotion evoked by these choices, for me, was horror–horror at the Empress, horror at the society I was being asked to take part in.  It contributed to a sense of powerlessness and shame, which belied the beauty and individuality with which I was allowed to start the game: choosing a poetic birth month, choosing an element.  This was a game where I was allowed to choose who I was, it seemed, but not to enact it.  That feeling was overwhelming.

The most powerful form of agency the game encourages, however, is the mechanic where the player draws multiple times on their own skin.  All the guidance the game gives is to draw a sigil representing a particular concept–the rest is up to the player.  I had the freedom to design what I wanted to draw, choose an instrument with which to draw it, and choose where to place it: all of which felt like more self-expression than most any choice I’ve ever had in a game.  The trust the game was placing in me to do it also felt powerful and freeing.  I felt the emotions being asked of me when I drew them on my skin–none more so than when I was asked to draw something representing my reaction to a distressing event involving the Empress, where my pain at being made to participate was vented by being allowed, no, commanded to express how I felt about it.  Agency in With Those We Love Alive is thus a complicated endeavor, and the feelings that come with it are complicated too–being trapped in action but free in identity, liberated in self-expression and constricted in moral choice.  I felt like I could be myself; I feel like I had to be somebody else.  And perhaps it’s not so bad that I wasn’t entirely allowed to identify.

The pacing is by now customary for Porpentine: with only a little bit of overhead information and a great deal the player is expected to pick up along the way in context.  You’re immediately introduced to the strangeness and horror of the Empress, but you don’t learn so much about yourself, your family, or your love life until later, and then in bits and pieces that filter through.  This has to be intentional–the Empress is consuming in With Those We Love Alive, whereas the subsuming of the self is a deliberate theme.  The story tiptoes along at a slow pace, in any case, simulating everyday life in dystopia, until it finally rolls up into a ball and accelerates near the end: notably, when the player character has more agency.  It allows you to build up your own sense of horror and futility regarding the Empress’s society before providing a way out.  I was genuinely uncertain of the direction of the ending by the end, so I think the deliberate spacing-out of the game’s plot was very effective.

The world created is horrific and beautiful: beauty premised on horror, which is no accident to the game’s themes and its title.  Its chief denizens are the player character and the Empress, who mirror one another in a striking way.  The Empress is the apparent greatest force in this world, and her existence is devouring: even devouring herself.  She is monstrously inhuman and consumes offhand in order to demonstrate her power.  The player character, on the other hand, lacks status or agency except through her craft, and is forced to make bloody choices in order to survive.  She is explicitly transgender and has an implicitly unaccepting family that writes to her.  The Empress is as fascinatingly offputting as the player character is sympathetic and relatable, yet distinct.

With Those We Love Alive is a haunting, brutal game with a slow burn of build-up; it demands an unusually visceral investment from the player.

3 thoughts on “Xyzzymposium 2014: Gabriel Murray on Best Story

  1. Sam Kabo Ashwell Post author

    The original sense of ‘symposium’ was a little more culturally specific than the plain meaning of ‘drinking party’ would suggest – moderate drinking (with everyone drinking a similar amount) to ensure stimulating conversation was theoretically one of the major objectives, even if it didn’t always turn out that way. But essentially, yeah.

  2. Pingback: April Link Assortment | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *