Xyzzymposium 2014: Caleb Wilson on Best Setting

Caleb Wilson has written interactive fiction such as Lime ErgotStarry Seeksorrow, and Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow, and has published non-­interactive fiction in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and other journals. He is currently working on a project for Choice of Games about an 18th century musical virtuoso.

The nominees for Best Setting were  80 DaysHadean Lands, Invisible Partiesand With Those We Love Alive.

Setting is one of my favorite things about IF. It has two meanings to me.

First, it’s the world where the fiction takes place. The four nominees for Best Setting all take place in interesting worlds, so I’ll write a bit about that.

But secondly, and this is what distinguishes a lot of IF from static fiction, setting is the world model: the nature of this created place you can roam around, comb over, backtrack through, and explore. Even without much of a narrative at all, you can still enjoy poking around a well-made world, whether it’s built of a grid of connected rooms, or links, or routes on a spinnable globe.

A simple definition of IF is fiction that includes mechanics: rules that determine how you experience the story. Taken this way, the world model of an IF is a big part of its mechanics: how the setting is laid out and what you can do there, what it feels like to navigate the world, and how this affects the narrative or gameplay. In general games are at their strongest when their mechanic matches their theme: I find that these four games all match mechanics to theme in interesting ways.

80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

What a brilliant idea to take Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and make it a steampunk adventure with airships and automatons and plenty of “mild peril.” (The most entertaining kind, according to Jon Ingold.) The idea reminds me a bit of mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, except that this actually makes sense. One of the best-loved features of steampunk is its hissing and floating conveyances, which fit perfectly into a story that’s ostensibly all about different transports of varying efficiency, and one of the more troubling aspects of old-fashioned adventure writing is the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes, which can be eliminated or subverted with alternate history. 80 Days uses steampunk both to enhance the original and fix some of its flaws.

Victorian-era steampunk is pretty familiar by now, but 80 Days still manages to feel fresh and exciting. What it comes down to for me is that the world (made up of 169 cities you can visit, in the newest release) is fully imagined: this feels like a global setting and not just an Imperial one. The British Empire is not dominant, just as Fogg and Passepartout are not.

The writer Meg Jayanth talks about this aspect of the game specifically: one of her goals was to create a world where the PCs aren’t the most important people in it. Fogg’s own story, of trying to get around the world within the time limit, is so simple as to be tellable in a sentence, and so the player’s choices about Fogg’s story are more purely mechanical: which vehicle do we book passage on; which route do we take; how much luggage can we carry? What’s splendid about the writing is the narrative layer that Jayanth has added behind and inside this mechanical layer. There are in fact stories about people here: they are the stories of people met by chance in foreign cities, and other passengers who have booked the same routes! Really, the whole world is made up of other people’s stories, and when the player gets to make narrative choices, they are mostly about how much they want the PCs to engage in the struggles and lives of other people.

I mentioned the mechanics of Fogg’s story: there are a number of cool mechanics in the game, but the one most tied to setting is also my favorite, which is choosing how to move. It works more like a board game than traditional IF: you unlock routes on the game board, which are all labeled with their cost, and the board is wrapped around a sphere, creating a globe you can spin with your finger and then tap to signal where you want to go. I love the feeling of scrutinizing the map and trying to figure out what route to take. Even better, as you consider, you can see icons of other people who are playing right then, creeping along, perhaps on different routes, perhaps better routes… It makes what could have been static into a tiny bustling little world. Another boardgame-like mechanic is a simple pickup and deliver aspect which a) lets you make some money but also b) fills out the setting with themed props. These mechanics work together to make the setting feel like a living, teeming place. By always giving you more choices than you can possibly take, the game makes its world seem huge. It’s a clever way to make even routes not taken and goods not bought serve a purpose. Taken together, all the main mechanics of the game, by simulating the kinds of things that travelers have to think about (how good is the route I’m on, how good might have been the route I’m not on, do I have enough space for all my luggage, who are my fellow travelers and what are they up to) support the tone, which is one of light adventure studded with small emotional connections.

Invisible Parties (Sam Kabo Ashwell)

Invisible Parties starts us running without any explanations, in the style of good SF. There are no explanations right away but there are clues: in the opening paragraph I count three (four if you count the subtitle.) The characters are “clade-mates”: this implies that they are related in some way but almost certainly not a family like we know, so the setting is somewhat alien. The ways are twisting against you and you can’t find a person named Jave: still vague, but that ways can twist imply a setting which is malleable. The game takes place in a tangle, which fits well with twistable ways. Add in an interdimensional romance and it makes a little more sense. Of course, it’s easy to whip past this: the first time I played I was completely lost for a while.

From the description of the first room we realize we’re in a multiverse. A tangled multiverse that’s a trap, and a trap in a game is there to escape from: an obvious goal. The traditional X ME explains further: the PC and (presumably the clade-mates) are travelers who can move between worlds. The worlds are our worlds–or at least versions of them–the first of the Beckys is described as looking like a Roman matron. A tangle, which is what we’re in, is a confusing place made up of many worlds. It has a foyer, much like the ifMUD. Talking to Becky gives a command, to forgo Jave, and now the setting snaps into place, suggesting both a story and goal: Jave is here in the tangle somewhere, Becky doesn’t want you with Jave, so, you are meant to find Jave in this confusing place and both get out.

It’s a bit complicated to talk about “setting” in Invisible Parties, because the setting is made of settings. There are both the individual rooms in the tangle, each a distinct setting chosen for its singularity, and the grid-like tangle into which all these rooms are melded together. The rooms–patches in the patchwork–are beautifully written, each one standing out as a really cool and interesting place which could easily become nominated for the Best Setting XYZZY if expanded into a full IF. (Fractal settings?) I was always sad I couldn’t poke around and see what was “really” to the NESW of these places, and I think this is key to understanding the characters as well: they don’t have access to the full settings either. The people of Invisible Parties, in stitching this place together, have shown themselves to be expert curators and judges of setting, but they don’t have any true places of their own, only those they borrow. The best settings are made of emotional tone as well as landscape, architecture, and furniture. With all the variety to its rooms, the tangle should be a wild and off-putting medley, but the tone (collegial, wistful, tinged with melancholy that none of these places of community are yours to stay in permanently) is consistent enough between patches so that it doesn’t feel jarring to wander around between them. That’s the brilliance of the setting, that it works both room by room and overall.

The most inventive mechanic is directly connected to the settings: the PC’s gifts. These are essentially specialized verbs that do different things based on context and which work by disrupting the settings. So using TROUBLEMAKER in the 20th century middle-class living room full of partying teenagers causes the cops to arrive; using TEXTUAL CRITIC in the raftered viking hall lets you improvise insult-poetry to defeat a huge gnarly viking. The settings–untouched, static–are unchanging until the PC arrives, automatically transforming into a setting-appropriate guise, and finds the right way to stir things into motion.

At the game’s end, when the PC and Jave finally manage to escape together, there’s a dash through the patchwork, where now all the settings are crumbling into their own crises. It’s great effect, and–again–all dependent on exquisite scene setting. The Raftered Hall; Sun-sleeps-in-the-rock; Solitaire With Friends; and all the others, really: these are some of my favorite “rooms” I’ve ever seen in IF. It’s a great experience to visit them, and a strangely moving one to watch disaster befall them as the tangle they’ve been forced into starts to come apart.

Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

This is a wonderful illustration of how an author can pin down setting with great elegance. To start: there’s a quote from Mandeville which, although its significance might not be clear right away, suggests moons and planets and strange travels. The game starts with unusual smells coming from alchemical supplies, and creaking beams. Creaking is bad, *still* creaking means that we are in the middle of a disaster. Someone else’s blood. We are in a “secondary” alchemy station, which sounds like a place of lesser importance. But an “alchemy” station? A quote in italics confirms that we’re a swabbie (so indeed of lesser importance.) We are in something called “His Majesty’s Marcher The Unanswerable Retort”. An X ME tells us we’re an unpromising naval ensign. The air is split with weird fractures. A door opens into a dead, airless land: a Hadean Land.

So what do we have so far? This is an amazing amount of setting for such a tiny space! The naval jargon tells us we’re on a vessel of some sort–but what kind? “Marcher” is an unfamiliar term, but a “march” is a borderland. Taking into account the Mandeville quote and the existence of alchemy (referred to in the Iain Banksian punning name of the ship, no less) it would seem that we are on an alchemy-powered vessel designed to explore… borders… which has gone… into space. This is a post-disaster setting. A fracture in the air can’t be anything but a fracture in the world itself. The world is broken.

The game includes a map, which itself serves several purposes. One: it confirms that where we are is tucked out of the way, and so not very important. Right away this sets up an implied goal: get to those interesting spots on the map. Deep Lab? Cracks? Observatory? Scaphe? We must investigate these places! Two: it shows us a visual picture of the Retort itself, which, while still vague, is very intriguing. (Three: it lets you navigate easily without needing to make your own map, of course.)

In addition to being an intriguing Science Fantasy world where alchemy works, the setting of Hadean Lands is a puzzle box. There are locked doors to bypass, materials to alter, corrosion to remove, rituals to perform. I’m pretty sure this is the best “setting as puzzle box” I’ve ever seen; it’s jaw-droppingly elaborate. What all this opportunity for mechanically fiddling with the model means is that the world, which is written in lucid and fairly simple prose (imagine for a moment if the game were written with the process-hiding metaphors of real alchemical texts) becomes active and multi-layered. Materials burn and bubble, and vapors and scents and chiming tones fill the air, as the ruined and inert marcher comes back to life with alchemical rituals.

The standard inventory mechanic of parser IF, which allows for the carrying around and using of portable items, is used to great effect here: instead of a bunch of unique items used for solving puzzles (like an iron key you can find that opens an iron door) you have access to material components and ritual equipment, which you can combine using alchemy into more and different components. The components and the equipment all function as thematic props as well, though in a different way from most games with lots of items. The atmosphere is one of intellectual discovery: instead of searching for things, you are searching for *how to make things*; once you figure out the recipe, you can have as much as you want. Even if you don’t need all those materials this gives the setting a feeling of richness and generosity. The delight and player agency that come from figuring out how to create what you need, instead of just finding it under the bed, are significant. And since the game–which, though it offers the illusion of limitless possibilities, is very deliberately designed–forces the player to find their way through a map full of calibrated obstacles, the player’s sense of mastery and power over their environment grows along with the PC’s. It’s a wonderful thing to happen in a game, and parallels what I imagine real alchemists must have looked for and probably never found. I almost believe that now I know what doing alchemy feels like.

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

With Those We Love Alive uses a very elegant method for establishing an alien environment: first the game asks in what month you were born, and the choices are unfamiliar, and very evocatively so. A culture that names its months things like “Broken Coffin” and “Eye in the Ground” strikes us as both slightly morbid and poetic. Next the game asks you what is your element. The choices are petal, mud, fur, machine, feather. Here the game seems to be telling us even more firmly: this is not your world, and even the basic building blocks of existence are different than what you know. And lastly, you choose your eye color: a more mundane detail which can be perfectly normal “brown/blue/hazel” or more unusual “violet/black” but makes the point as well: this is an alien world, and you are in it.

In the first scene the PC (who will also have a randomized, alien name) is invited to join the (horrible monster) Queen’s court as a maker of objects–not only does this sound like the kind of invitation the character can’t turn down, the mechanics agree: there is no choice not to go.

The world of the court the PC ends up in is grotesque yet beautiful: everything is effluvium, broken machinery, and insectile creepiness; the screen switches between gradients of blue and pink and green while peaceful electronic music plays. In the genre of body horror flesh is mutable, and this is meant to appall us, but here mutable flesh and bone, made liquid by “melter”, are a good thing. Of all the things that are terrible to the PC, changeable flesh isn’t one of them.

I think I would call this neon gothic science-fantasy horror. But it’s a strange languid kind of horror. The setting is dreamlike: it’s not the kind of fantasy world where there is an ecology to work out; imagery and the feelings evoked by it are everything. The world is small and constrained: a few streets of the city, a garden, a lake, a balcony, a bit of the palace. Moving around these places waiting for something to happen brings on a curious mixture of intrigued boredom and dread. The player wants something to happen and yet is afraid of what it might be. There is the constant feeling that all opportunity for change is gone. The enemy is so strong that it’s pointless to resist, and the mechanics enforce this by simply not providing you with any way to do so. (Some of the more complicated choices involve what horrifying materials the weapons and masks the PC crafts for the Queen are made of. This is a great way to both add setting-defining props and add choices that won’t greatly alter the story.) The early-game lack of agency feels specific to this story; an enforced sleepiness, a flatness like that caused by depression. And yet Porpentine’s vivid (can I make up a word here?) slimepunk imagination somehow makes this world enjoyable to crawl through. This is a remarkable atmosphere to have conjured up in a game.

With Those We Love Alive is a great illustration of how emotion and setting can crystallize into one thing. Without its fantastic imagery making solid what the PC is feeling the emotions wouldn’t be as strong, and without the emotion, the setting would be weightless. Mechanically, for the escape at the end to be effective, the setting has to be a believable prison, and everything about it–the dreariness alternating with splattery horror, the constrained choices, the calming colors–reinforces its strength. The ending is extremely powerful, in part because I wasn’t sure escape was going to be possible from this setting at all. For much of the game, sleep seems to be the only chance to get away, and sleep is just a black screen that lasts no more than a few seconds. The PC’s dreams were all distilled away when she was a child.

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