Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing 2012

Yoon Ha Lee writes on howling dogs, Eurydice, Dinner Bell and Bee.

howling dogs by Porpentine

From the standpoint of pure technical versatility in the prose, howling dogs is quite strong.  The game itself is a CYOA that starts in a constricted setting (a jail cell?  a mildly science fictional psych ward?) and ranges, over the course of many clicks, through such topics as the philosophy of landscaping, a contemporary murder set-piece, and even a baroque space opera.  The prose adapts itself to each of these in turn.

The game opens with sentence fragments, severe, utilitarian:

A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling.

but the first hint of the prose’s versatility comes when the player is invited to “[d]escribe the garden aesthetically, bureaucratically, horticulturally.”  The voice for each is convincingly different:

Describe aesthetically: “This garden was certainly created by a soul in accord with Heaven. Surely spirits dwell in this verdant shrine, this majestic expanse of purple buds hanging with wind-wet leaves. I am overcome!”

            Describe bureaucratically: “This is a regulation garden in every aspect, save for the tallness of the trees. The trees extend at least 12 thumbs above standard.”

            Describe horticulturally: “The trees are in full health from leaf to flower. Water runs through in seemingly haphazard curves but closer observation reveals excellent coverage of the entire garden. Pruning and sweeping seems to be done in a timely manner.”

Eventually we come to the space opera segment in full flower:

You are the empress of the starry diadem, lordess of the sun-cursed towers, visionatrix of the inner sea, controller of foundries, trade routes, war zones, of anything laws may touch and everything susceptible to grace. Outside your domain are outlaws and damned things.

 From the highest tower of your palace your edicts soar on blemishless birds of a rare color, edicts to shatter borders or rise up empires.

Here we have flavorful vocabulary, especially “visionatrix.”  Frankly, I’m impressed by the author’s ability to move between genres and tones.

Once in a while there’s a misstep:

The shower is a peaceful time for you, a way of demarcating space within extremely limited space, moisture and temperature standing in for spatiality. This is wet space, warm space, flowing space.

Seriously, even in attempting to convey the luxury of the shower, this is overkill.  I had to stifle a snicker while I got to “standing in for spatiality.”  Later on, if you decide to help murder the man:

He inhales sharply in the way he does when he has woken up instantly. His testosteronated body rolls back against me.

“Testosteronated,” really?  And (perhaps just me) “invaderly” rings too close to “neighborly” for me to take seriously.  Still, prose falls differently on different ears; a couple examples that bother me are not so bad, considering, especially when there are plenty of gems to contrast them with.  Here and there you can find a delicious adjective, such as the “large rectangular brutalist structure” (emphasis added).  Later on, in the introduction to the space opera section, “thunderslap” and “drop-coffins” are equally startling and interesting.

And it’s not just individual coinages: one of my favorite moments in the game was this passage in its entirety:

We have captured the city, although many tall buildings committed suicide rather than be captured.

We bring back choice specimens, chained to elephants–a church, several fine houses, and a cafe. We have questioned them all closely but they will not reveal their origins. Perhaps the city is closer to a plant and simply grows where it will.

If there’s a fault, it’s that I’m not entirely sure what the story was that this game was trying to convey, but I suppose that more properly belongs under Story, to the extent that a narrative game can be partitioned in such fashion.  In terms of the prose qua prose, howling dogs is a virtuoso performance; I was only too sorry when it ended.

Eurydice by Anonymous

My reaction to the writing in Eurydice was consistently that it was good, sometimes even brilliant, but nevertheless not as good as it could have been.  In a way that’s not bad; I have to laud the author’s ambition, even though their reach sometimes exceeded their grasp.  Certainly I’d look forward to playing more games by them.

I need to get two things out of the way.  The first is the number of typos.  I played the post-comp release, which claimed to have fixed some of this.  Either the fix introduced more typos (believe me, I know how that goes) or the original release had even more typos.  I note this chiefly because I will forgive a few typos in a work of IF, the way I spot proofreaders of published books a few.  (There may be an element of self-interest: I used to proofread for The Internet Review of Science Fiction.)  But Eurydice had enough typos that it became actively distracting, which is a shame, because there is a lot of good writing here and it deserved better.

The second, and perhaps this is an idiosyncrasy on my part, but the apologetic help text informs the player that the game is “meant to have a sort of dreamlike quality to it.”  Don’t do this!  Let the work stand on its own.  I will figure out for myself what qualities I think your piece has, thanks.

In any case, the opening strongly calls to mind the sense of abandonment that runs throughout the game, and manages to give a strong sense of place at the same time:

This room is full of silence.  Freshly disturbed dust hangs upon the air.  There are patterns of pressure upon the carpet, suggesting there are spaces where once there weren’t.   The walls are bare, but for the occasional pictureless hook.  There is a wardrobe here, a chest of drawers and a skeleton of shelves against the far wall.

Other room descriptions are more utilitarian: Upstairs Landing, Your Room.  Occasionally you find one enlivened by some well-chosen telling detail, as in the “Cuddly Cthulhu and a Darth Vader Mr Potato Head, a string of silver starred tinsel you forgot to take down two Christmases ago.”

This is not one of those games where you can EXAMINE SILENCE, but it’s not bad that the oppressiveness of the description suggests that it could be.  This perhaps belongs more under implementation than writing, but in some cases the stock responses left in place detract from the creation of atmosphere.  I have a bad habit of trying to JUMP in every game (I’m twelve, okay?), and I don’t fault the author for not implementing a custom response for that verb, but in a game based on this particular subject material it seems a genuine misstep not to have something special for SING!

Luckily, in at least one instance of PLAY LYRE you are indeed rewarded with a more appropriate description of musical skill:

And you play, strange, savage music, spiralling out of the lyre, drenched inhuman colours, filling your mouth up with heat and the tang of metal.

My favorite touch here is “the tang of metal,” but “drenched inhuman colours” isn’t all bad, either.  Likewise, later on you invoke “[a] torrent of cherry blossom petals” in your attempts to persuade Persephone.

The game has its moments of unexpected beauty: a carpet “washed clean of its cockleshell memories and mermaid-hair dreams.”  The lyre’s “shape a graceful curve like a human spine.”  In a neglected garden, “the anorexic shapes of trees.”  The patio’s “maze of cracks and encroachment.”  Others aren’t beautiful, as such, but perfectly capture the PC’s inner state: in response to MAKE BED, “Oh, why bother?”, and in response to GET CELINE’S JACKET, “No.  Just no.”  Then there are moments of drollery, as in this first lyre-playing effort: the strings “make a sad little sound like elastic bands vibrating over an empty ice-cream tub.”  A nicely ironic way to deflate the mythic material.

Some of the characters (as they were) are wonderfully encapsulated: you can’t interact with them for much, but you’re left with a strong sense of who they are and how the PC relates to them.  Of Jess the narrator says that “there are times when your differences seem less like intriguing points of interest upon the tourist map of your psyches than insurmountable barriers to understanding or accord,” while the first response to TALK TO LAURIE is the flat “God no.  You don’t want to support her delusion that she has any place here.”  One of the best, perhaps because it describes a plant, is that for Tilda with her “generous, open-mouthed flowers with immensely long, lascivious stamen [sic].”  And Celine, of course, the one character this game had to nail, not just with “Celine is beautiful but not today,” but the heartbreaking repetition of “Celine listens, and laughs, and pretends,” although it was at “She seems only a little afraid” that I teared up.  Sometimes it’s the simple phrasing that works best.

There are also phrases that just don’t work.  The response to GET DAVE’S DUSTERS is “Woah [sic] there pardner, that ain’t yours,” which is so parodically Texan (full disclosure: I am a Texan) that it sticks out even making allowances for an attempt to inject humor.  The description of Hinksey Park Gate, with its archaic “burthen,” makes me wonder if I’m missing some poetic allusion.  (Which is not bad, necessarily, but I am insufficiently educated.)

One passage that particularly disappointed me was the first time you PLAY LYRE to charm the snake:

 A sudden surety takes possession of your fingers and they dance seemingly of their accord across the lyre strings as if they find them familiar.  Music floats across the still evening air, honey-sweet and sad.  You play to the neglected grass and the uncharted sky, to the inconstant breeze and the fading light.  Even the snake lifts its head, and sways entranced.

I had hoped for something better from an Orpheus performance, rather than a milquetoast series of word choices (“floats,” “honey-sweet,” “neglected”).  And the description of Cerberos would have been bland to begin with, but the mention of “ruby red” eyes immediately vaults it into the realm of Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual descriptions; rather not the effect I had hoped for.

Still, for the shortcomings in the game’s prose, there are many moments that work beautifully.  As with all the finalists, I only gave the game a single playthrough and I was informed that there are four possible endings, but the author nailed the one ending I did find.  In the end, I came away both enchanted, moved, and looking forward to the next game.

Dinner Bell by Jenni Polodna

Notable for the consistent tone, half-madcap humor, half-horror, always distinctive.  This is the shortest writeup not because I didn’t admire the game (I did), but because it’s so hard to come up with new, interesting ways to say how well the humor was done!  The opening is a pretty good advertisement for what you’ll be treated to for the rest of the game:

They must have moved you here in your sleep again.  Right now it looks uncannily like your grandmother’s kitchen, which is a new fact and an unnerving one, but you can tell it’s the usual test chamber by the anatomically correct ichthyosaur you managed to carve into the linoleum before they got the knife away from you.  You miss that knife.

(Man, you’re hungry.)

It’s the “anatomically correct” in this the alarming situation that really makes this paragraph.  Humor is hard to get right, and even harder to get right consistently.  I was vastly pleased that this game does it so well.  The jokes range from SAT analogies (“You cannot eat until the bell goes ding.  Bell : ding :: time : eat. You understand this with every fibre of your being.”) to the insouciantly rhymed response to TALK TO ROBOT: “Pat’s a patter, not a chatter.”  Even descriptions of your all-encompassing hunger don’t stint on the funny: “(You realize that somewhere in the world, someone is eating an infinite number of Olive Garden breadsticks, and your eyes fill with tears.)”  Notice that the author isn’t shy about using parentheticals.  I admire that.

Sometimes the descriptions get just plain crazed, but in a work that is banking on its ability to wow you with the weird, that’s not a bad thing.  The wax pears, for instance:

According to legend, this bucket contains one real pear and 37 enchanted wax ones, all identical in smell, texture, and appearance.  Anyone who eats the real pear gets to be king of Reno, Nevada, and anyone who eats a wax pear is cursed to spend eternity making out under the bleachers with their fifth-grade math teacher.  Your blood runs cold just thinking about it.

If you follow this up with TAKE REAL PEAR, the hostile default “you can’t take something that isn’t here” response is bizarrely apropos: “What real pear?  What are you even talking about?”  I realize this is not about implementation but about writing, but the variety of quippy responses to oddball actions really did please me.  When I attempted to OPEN PAT the robot, I got:

The distinction between things you can open and things you cannot open is not actually as subtle as you make it out to be.  You can open a doll drawer.  You can’t open a head-patting robot.  Are we good here?

I am especially fond of that last condescending “Are we good here?”  And then there’s the response to LOOK IN BUCKET:

You spend some time sorting through the pears in an attempt to identify the real one, but your search proves…

(narrator puts on sunglasses)

 …fruitless.

(YEAAAAAAAH!)

Okay, maybe the last “YEAAAAAAAH!” is overkill, but I will forgive one instance of overkill.

As a bonus, you can get a REPORT at the end, with even more parentheticals giving a disturbing look into what’s going on in the head of Dr. Beagle.  You may be getting the impression that I like the game on the strength of the parentheticals alone, but really, it’s that the game nails the tone that it’s reaching for without getting tired.  I am under no illusions that humor is easy to write (or anyway, my skills don’t lie in that direction), so it pleased me to experience this example of thoroughgoing wacky starvation.

Bee by Emily Short

I will be frank.  It’s difficult for me to assess the writing in this game because I went in expecting to enjoy it based on the author and the subject material (I may have won a spelling bee in elementary school).  But the prose, from the get-go, struck me as dry and unappealing.  Here’s the opening:

Sooner or later you’re going to lose.

You are a junior spelling champion. Your parents have been teaching you at home since you were four. You’ve never wasted a moment in a conventional classroom. Instead you stay home and study. Spelling, reading, English. Word lists. Latin for etymology. You play Scrabble and Boggle. You have boxes of flash cards.

And you keep up your other studies as well, because you have to spend at least four hours a day on conventional, non-spelling subjects to be eligible. You go to church. You do chores. You attend home-schooling co-op events so that you’ll meet a wide range of people.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this prose.  It’s well-written.  (In fact, I think I only spotted a single typo the whole game, and I am wondering if “Worldy Cinema” really is supposed to be “Worldy” instead of “Worldly” after all, because I am hesitant to challenge a game about spelling bees.)  The writing gives a sense of the PC and the strictures of the PC’s world.  There’s no sparkle here, but given the sense of endless study and endless duty, that’s not inappropriate.  At the same time, I found it was difficult for me to work up any enthusiasm for this scenario.

Sometimes the prose seemed–not lifeless, but rather dry.  It’s a little ironic to be told that “[s]ervices can get dull,” only to have the entire paragraph trend in that direction:

Certainly Mother and Father take the line that you aren’t concentrating enough on your spiritual health, if you ever hint that you might prefer to play in the nursery during services, or that it would be a relief to be allowed to draw quietly, as some of the other children do.

This seems to pose a dilemma: the PC does not seem to be one for snark, so it’s inappropriate for them to be responding to everything with a quip, but as a player I desperately wanted something to make large sections of the text less grimly dutiful, so it would be more pleasant to read, even if it didn’t reflect the PC’s personality and/or circumstances.

The game gains some understated wit later on.  Original sin is parlayed into an exhortation to your character to try hard, which is neatly summed up as “The Theology of Flash Cards.”  Your sister Letitia “suffers daily from being named almost after a vegetable.”  This overlaps with the NPC category, perhaps, but Lettice benefited in general from the fact that the text made it clear that she was just a little bit odd, as in her drawing that “shows Father with a cloud of exclamation points over his head, shaking his finger, his eyebrows represented by one black V.”

Indeed, the prose changes to reflect the circumstances: not as dramatically as in howling dogs, but then the range of settings doesn’t change as dramatically, either.  Latin vocabulary work begins with “[w]ords of light and fire [that] flicker through your notebook.”  I laughed duly at the Wheelock’s Latin joke about ferro (“memorized, carried, or borne”), having wrestled with that verb just a couple months ago.  In learning Greek writing, “[y]ou give yourself a pass here and just make accent marks wherever they will look prettiest,” a nice touch of whimsy.  In a disheveled house, “[t]he cuckoo clock on the wall is broken and doesn’t tell the time, and the bird is sticking out as though he’s come to visit and can’t take the hint to go home again.”  Not to mention “unsafe images of impalas” that “you doubt…would tempt you to lustful thoughts.”  The best example of this is when the player is given a choice of several “?????”‘s to represent spelling while practically in a fugue-state.  (I probably have the wrong number of question marks; I had forgotten the extremely irritating Varytale “feature” of disappearing your choices on you and hadn’t copy-pasted before I clicked.)

Upon reflection, the writing in Bee is quite adroit, and my initial dislike for it is probably a matter of idiosyncratic player reaction.  I imagine that it worked just fine for many players.  But that first reaction to the early prose was so difficult to overcome that, by the game’s end, I was more relieved than sad to see it go.  I have to wonder if I would like it better on replay, especially if I made the PC rebel more; maybe the narrative would shift accordingly.

 

Overall I would tend to vote for either howling dogs or Dinner Bell for my favorite in this category.  The two games are so different in affect that they’re hard to compare directly.  Perhaps it’s enough that each does what it’s doing very well.

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