Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.

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Cover of the D&D basic rulebook from 1981, described elsewhere in the post

D&D&Me

I’m the same age as the kids in Stranger Things. Like them, I rode my bike around the neighborhood a bunch, loved my Kenner Star Wars stuff, and dropped many a quarter on arcade games. Also like them, I played a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons as a tween and early teen.

Exact ages and dates are a little hazy behind the mists of time, but my introduction to the game happened on a birthday — 11th or 12th I think. On some gift-giving occasions, my parents would send me on a treasure hunt through the house, following a trail of clues until I finally found a present. On that birthday, I opened a drawer at the end of the trail and found… something?

It was a bunch of solid shapes — a pyramid, a cube, and others with many more sides. Each one was a different color, and each side had a number written on it. They seemed like dice, maybe? The note with them said, “What are these? I don’t know either, but let’s find out together!”

Three very worn plastic dice

The survivors of that original batch of dice — edges worn down from many rolls!

Then out came the purple box, with the red rule book, each of which sported a picture of a couple of adventurers taking on a big water-dwelling dragon. I learned about the dice, the attribute scores, the combat, and all the other mechanics, and was quite intrigued. But what hooked me was this new kind of game playing, one that combined elements of the board games I loved with themes from the Tolkien and Zelazny books I’d been reading, while at the same time bringing in an element of pure pretend play, a part of childhood I’d been leaving behind with some ambivalence.

My dad was the Dungeon Master for our D&D session that night. I was an elf, lured into an underground vault to uncover its secrets alongside another character played by my mom. I still remember our kitchen table, Dad behind the cardboard screen, narrating our adventure. “You creep as quietly as possible through the dark underground passage. From far off, you hear the sound of water slowly dripping. Your torches illuminate gauzy threads, strung across the passageway AND SUDDENLY A GIANT SPIDER DROPS DOWN FROM THE CEILING!!” Oh man, my mom and I just about jumped out of our skins. But I was enchanted.

That was the last time for a very long time that I got to be a D&D player. I corralled some friends to play, but the only way I could sell the concept was if I was the Dungeon Master. That was okay — I was utterly fascinated with the game, and more than happy to spend hours populating dungeons with monsters and making up narrative threads for my friends’ characters. Through a combination of allowance spending and holiday gifts, I acquired all the advanced rulebooks, and many an adventure module. I even branched out into RPGs (role-playing games) from other genres — science fiction, James Bond spy stuff, and of course Marvel superheroes.

On a regular basis, 3 or 4 kids would gather in my basement and I’d take them through adventures. Or try to. As much as I dug everything about the game, there was always something a touch unsatisfying about those gaming sessions. My friends and I weren’t quite on the same wavelength, and I didn’t have the skill to even identify that, let alone talk about it. I wanted to be transported into a story and soar on the high-flown fantasy of it all, but most of the time everything remained stubbornly prosaic, a hack & slash gold-grubbing exercise, never really suspending disbelief. I suspect that’s down to my lack of skill as a DM, our ages, and the overall awkwardness of role-playing among non-theatrical types.

In any case, after a few years all the RPG stuff got packed away, and we all moved on to other pursuits, including — for me — actual theater. I sold a bunch of D&D modules and such on eBay some time ago, happy to recoup a little money for papers that were just mouldering away in a box. Selling that stuff made me quite sure that the D&D part of my life was over.

Then came Dante. As he became a teenager, Dante began to be deeply interested in game design. He’d always been someone who immediately wanted to make up variants to any game we played together, but as his brain matured, he started seriously exploring whatever gaming avenues he could find and learning about all sorts of genres and mechanics. This led him to discovering some retro roguelikes, in particular Angband. As he unpacked Angband‘s mechanics, he got very interested in their origins, which allowed me to explain to him all about Dungeons and Dragons.

A collection of vintage D&D rulebooks, along with a dungeon master's screen and a few peripherals

Some of those childhood rulebooks and accessories — I didn’t sell everything!

He wanted to try it. Of course, I’d sold much of my D&D stuff years ago, and I had no concept of the way the game had evolved since. But between the Internet and the resources I still had, I cobbled some rules together, getting as far as helping him put together a character and taking him on the rudimentary beginnings of an adventure. Right after that, magic struck.

I’d been talking to a co-worker of mine socially about Dante’s interest in D&D and well, it turns out her husband is a longtime DM who wanted to start up a campaign again. They invited us to join. I was a little shy about it at first, intimidated by the gulf between my early-teen self and my current self, and all the D&D lore that had gone by in the meantime. But “for Dante’s sake”, I warmed up to it, and we created some characters.

Starting then, and for about 16 months, Dante and I took our dwarven cleric and half-orc barbarian through a series of great adventures. The 5th edition D&D rules are a deep well of delight, and I got to be the D&D player I’d always secretly wanted to be, with a great DM and a great group. During that time, I realized something pretty profound: Dungeons and Dragons played a crucial part in making me who I am today, and some of my most ingrained personality characteristics are either extensions of the D&D aesthetic or attempts to complete the experience I reached for as a kid but couldn’t quite grasp.

Take that theater, for instance. You know one way to get involved in a story, becoming one of the characters? Audition for a play! In improv, you can even invent that character’s direction as you go along! I wouldn’t make the claim that my heavy involvement in high school theater was a direct outgrowth of my preteen D&D session frustrations, but I will say that being in plays scratched an itch that I could never quite get at via RPGs.

Here’s a broader, deeper one: systems and randomness. For all of my adult life, I’ve been someone who makes decisions via diceroll, in the framework of a set of rules. Not huge decisions, mind you (usually), but routine and daily ones. Today I decided to drink water (instead of tea or soda) via diceroll, and also what book I would read — 1950s Ditko/Lee comics on Marvel Unlimited, also selected randomly. I’m focused on writing this post today via a random choice. I’m drinking a beer right now because of what I rolled a half-hour ago.

Writing about it a little over fifteen years ago, I called this habit “a coping mechanism to deal with a world of too much choice.” And that’s still true. But after returning to D&D, I realized that of course I’d imprinted on this behavior because I fell in love with its manifestation in the D&D rules. One of the most fascinating and incredible things about the game is the way that the dice shape the characters’ lives, taking both mundane and exotic moments in directions that nobody can wholly predict, and around which everyone’s stories must flow. Of course, in the game those dice are merely symbolic of the randomness in the universe, but my personal universe’s randomness comes directly from dice and other random number generators.

Once I started thinking in this direction, I was floored to understand how much of my identity has its roots in the D&D experience. My love for interactive fiction, I realized, is also an attempt to find what childhood RPGing didn’t provide. Even the best IF doesn’t let you have totally free rein to take the story in any direction, but honestly neither does the best RPG session. The best IF does give you an interactive experience with a storyteller who is fully committed to immersing you in a compelling fictional world, with no risk of other humans ruining the vibe. Those hundreds upon hundreds of hours I spent text adventuring had an intrinsic value of their own, of course, but they were also a balm to the part of me that just kept longing for a deep, immersive role-playing experience.

Cover of the Player's Handbook from the 5th edition of the D&D rules

Why was that longing so powerful, that it set me on these lifelong courses of extension and compensation? Judging by the ache that comes up in me when I write about it, I think some part of it is deeply connected to loneliness. By most measures, I’m not a lonely person. I have a family who I genuinely enjoy living with, and friends across many different realms, from workplace to trivia to IF to longtime high school bonds. But looking back on those childhood D&D sessions feels lonely in a specific way: the loneliness of being with people who are all there for a different reason than you are.

That’s nothing against those childhood friends, who were perfectly fine and most likely very patient with my D&D obsession. It’s more about trying to find a match for a part of me, and it not being there. For all the friends and family I have, I still never found that match, until my adventures with Dante and my co-workers.

Getting to have that experience after all, almost forty years after first opening that drawer with the dice inside, was an enormous blessing. But this story doesn’t have the happiest ending. Our D&D campaign broke up about 9 months ago, foundering on the pandemic-scarred shoals of some ugly real-life events. According to our DM, it’s not coming back anytime soon, certainly not in 2021.

I miss those gaming sessions terribly, with an outsized grief that I only now understand has been sublimated for most of my life into other forms. Finally assuaging that lonely feeling and then having it come back makes it so much sharper. I really, really want to return to Dungeons and Dragons again, or more specifically, I really really want to be a Dungeons and Dragons player again. That’s where I found the joy for which I’d been unconsciously yearning. Dante hasn’t been grieving it the way I have, of course, and unlike me he’s more into mechanics than story, but I know he hopes to return to the D&D table as well.

Anybody want to run a campaign for a 50-year-old lapsed roleplayer and his gentle, genderqueer 15-year-old son?

A Crack In The Shell cover image - a chick hatching among eggs

A Crack In The Shell

It’s January 1, and that means it’s time for another year-end music mix. As always, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2020 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that very little on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

As terrible a year as 2020 was, I spent much of it feeling pretty lucky. My job was able to smoothly transition into working safely at home, and I never felt the economic threat that hit so many people. (Laura’s job wasn’t quite so smooth, but she still has it at least.) I love the people I live with, and even after being in close proximity for much more time than usual, we still have a great time together. Our house has enough space for each of us to do our thing remotely if that’s needed.

Also, I’m so grateful that Dante is in high school, and therefore can pretty much self-manage everything he needs to do while we’re working. My colleagues and friends who have young children at home have it much rougher. For that matter, I’m grateful that school and work can even happen remotely. It’s hard to imagine how much more disruptive a pandemic like this would have been in pre-Internet days. I’m even able to virtually get together with friends for things like trivia, board games, and the occasional celebration, thanks to the Jetsons technology we all have now.

Still, god, what a year. As good as we have it, I defintely felt my share of disruptions, and one of those was in my life with music. The Album Assignments project went on pause, as Robby took on the daunting task of educating 5th graders remotely and I transitioned into a very different way of working. In the course of that transition, I found myself listening to music much less than I had before. My previous time with music was mostly spent on my commute, which evaporated after COVID-19 hit. I also worked a lot with music on, but that dried up too as I acclimated to working from home, with other people around.

Finally, sometime in June, it hit me that I was desperately missing music, and I made some changes. While I still listen to podcasts on my walks, I switched over to music while doing the dishes, cooking, and other household chores. I figured out ways to integrate it back into my work life, and I made it a part of the time I spent with Dante, including an awesome music trivia habit where we quiz each other on our favorite musical canons so that we can each learn from the other. (His are all instrumental videogame music, definitely not a strong genre for me.) We also found ourselves doing a lot of text adventures and board games (physical and virtual) together, activities which lend themselves to background music.

In any case, when it came time to make this mix, I was picking from a much shorter list than usual. Nevertheless, I’m very happy with how it came out. Here are some musical highlights from a pretty tough year.

1. Jonathan Coulton – Pictures Of Cats
How 2020 are these opening lines? “All at once, it fills up my feed / More bad news that I didn’t need / I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know.” I had that experience over and over this year, and definitely ended up doomscrolling through Twitter plenty of times when I should have just switched over to looking at pictures of cats. Strangely, I listened to this song before the full 2020 of it all hit the world, but when I reviewed the list, I knew there was no better song to kick off this mix.

2. Aimee Mann feat. James Mercer – Living A Lie
Like almost all of these tracks, this one was written prior to 2020, and in fact came out before the Trump era. And I don’t think it was ever intended politically — it’s about a relationship — but I felt like it perfectly captured a mood this year. When you’re stuck with a frantic liar, you have no choice but to live inside a lie. That was never more clear than in 2020, when the President’s relentless need for self-aggrandizement and seeking short-term advantage had him undermining and upending every single institution that any of the rest of us could trust. It got to the point where we couldn’t even be sure our own Centers For Disease Control were able to provide us reliable information. Often it felt like all we could do is wait for a crack in the shell. Thank god one came at the end of the year.

3. Richard Thompson – Keep Your Distance
I listened to a fair amount of Richard Thompson (and Linda too) toward the beginning of the year, so I wanted to include a song of his in this mix. When I looked over the list, the words “Keep Your Distance” jumped out at me. Once again, this is meant in the relationship sense, but “keep your distance” is so 2020! This was the year that simple trips to the grocery store felt like foraging expeditions into deadly territory, not helped by the wingnut contingent who wear their masks under their noses or not at all, because freedom or whatever. Keep your distance, wingnuts! (And sadly, everyone else too.)

4. Frank Sinatra – Mood Indigo
This was from one of the few 2020 album assignments, Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours. (Well, actually the tail end of 2019, but my listening year goes November-October, so it’s 2020 to me.) This was a concept album of sadness, and Sinatra’s smooth reading of this wonderful, melancholy Duke Ellington tune felt like a good summation of the story so far. Also, “Indigo” was particularly important this year, but more about that later.

5. Aretha Franklin – Chain Of Fools (unedited version)
And here’s the turn. I vividly remember waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store when this version of “Chain Of Fools” came into my ears. I’d never heard it before — it came up on Spotify or something. The slow, soulful intro — “the sound of pain” — suddenly bursting into “chain chain chain”… BLEW MY MIND. I’ve always loved the single version of this song, and having it set up like this made little fireworks of joy go off in my head. When I finally figured out in June that I needed to bring more music back in, Aretha’s Lady Soul was the album I started with, and it worked perfectly. I will never forget giddily dancing around the kitchen to these songs, like some kind of solo remake of The Big Chill, blissfully losing everything else in music and simple tasks.

6. Prince – Little Red Corvette
Lady Soul was the first album that brought music definitively back into my life. The Very Best Of Prince was the second. Prince hit big in the early ’80s, ages 12-14 for me, and I didn’t know how to process him. I think he scared me, honestly. I had friends who were fans, but all that sexuality, androgyny, and funk — I couldn’t deal with it. I pushed it away. This year, I invited it back in, and found that I love it now. Like a lot of parties, I’m very late to it, but having a great time now that I’m here.

7. Stevie Nicks – Stand Back
Anytime I hear “Little Red Corvette”, I’m pretty much always going to think of “Stand Back.” That’s because Stevie has a story she’s told many times, of driving on the highway towards her honeymoon of a short-lived, ill-advised marriage, pretty much the opposite of “a love that’s gonna last.” When “Little Red Corvette” came on the radio, she was inspired. She found a tape recorder, and composed her own song on top of Prince’s. Then, when recording “Stand Back”, she found the courage to call him and tell him this story, and in response he showed up and played the synth riff on it. “Stand Back” is the love child of ’80s chiffon royalty’s king and queen.

8. Stevie Nicks – Crying In The Night (live 2017)
You can hear that story, and many others, in Stevie’s concert film from her 24 Karat Gold tour. Despite the pandemic, I found my way to a movie theater twice this year. Once was for The New Mutants, a superhero movie that features my favorite Marvel character of all time, a Scottish mutant codenamed Wolfsbane. Having loved this character since I was 12, there was simply no way that I was going to miss seeing her played by Maisie Williams on the big screen. The movie had plenty of flaws, but it got Wolfsbane right, and for that I will always love it.

The other movie I showed up for was Stevie’s aforementioned concert film. It’s a filmed version of what I called “the Stevie Nicks show I’d been awaiting for 30 years.” In it, she told lots of stories like the one above — seriously, the movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I think about 30 minutes of it is storytelling. She also sang songs she’d NEVER sung before in concert, including this one from the Buckingham Nicks album. That album isn’t even available on CD! What a thrill it was to hear her sing it in concert, and the movie brought back that thrill. Totally worth braving the virus.

9. Prince – Kiss
The next couple songs are just more sweet memories of my “soul kitchen” moments this year. “Kiss” is a super fun song on its own, and I can’t help hearing it in my mind juxtaposed with the version that The Art Of Noise recorded featuring Tom Jones. I thought about including that version in this mix, but after I went back and listened to it, I found that Prince outstripped it so dramatically that its inclusion could only feel disappointing after the real thing.

10. Aretha Franklin – (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
There’s not a lot to say about this one, except that it’s another standout moment from Lady Soul. My thick socks sliding around on our wooden kitchen floor, with this song playing in earbuds, led to great moments of happiness this year.

11. clipping. – All Black
Conversely, there is a lot to say about this one. First, some explanation of who this band is. The vocalist is Daveed Diggs, who has a bunch of credits, all of which are far overshadowed by the fact that he originated the roles of Jefferson and Lafayette in the Broadway production of Hamilton. clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio in which Diggs joins producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes. Their album Splendor & Misery was the last album assignment I wrote, posted just a few days before everybody went home and stayed there. Listening to it now, the music feels shockingly prophetic of what was to come. First of all, most of the story on the album is about a guy who is alone in space, first captured and then in control, but exiled from the world he knew. There have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I was in a space capsule, well-furnished and supplied with plenty of entertainment, but orbiting Earth rather than on it.

Secondly, the album and in particular this song is centrally concerned with Blackness and oppression. As it turned out, so was the summer of 2020. I wrote about this in the album post, how “all black everything” partakes of many layers of meaning, including as an allusion to other hip-hop songs that take it as a declaration of pride and strength. Those two images together — all black everything but isolated from everywhere — bundled up a lot of 2020 for me.

12. Jonathan Coulton – All This Time
Here’s another sci-fi song, albeit one in a vastly different musical mode. “All This Time” is from Coulton’s album Solid State, which I listened to a lot early in the year. It’s a wonderful album of thoughtful power pop about surveillance, technology, and love, and this is one of the standout songs. However, my attachment to this song in this year was more about its video than the song itself. That video was in the form of a text adventure — it’s by far the best text-adventure-themed video ever made, no disrespect to MC Frontalot’s “It Is Pitch Dark”.

That fits this year perfectly, because this was the year I jumped back into my passion for interactive fiction. Part of that was creating a new blog to house the many IF reviews that live on my old web page, and another big part of it was revisiting many games from the Infocom canon, but this time with Dante guiding the play. Together we replayed (or in his case, played for the first time) all the Zork and Enchanter games, and had a fantastic time doing it. I may write about it in the new blog at some point, but even if I don’t, I’ll treasure that experience. This year, many things were taken away in exchange for all this newfound time, and sometimes we made the most of it.

13. Genesis – No Reply At All
Some of those losses, though, had a really negative effect on me. Here’s one that I didn’t expect, until I understood how much I counted on what I didn’t have anymore. I found myself dealing with a pretty shocking (for me) level of insecurity this year. Uncharacteristically, I found myself frequently fretting about my relationships with pretty much everybody who doesn’t live with me, especially co-workers. Absences of replies, or even delays, had me worrying I’d somehow done something to upset whoever my anxious mind chose to focus on. It turns out that I really depend on mundane social interactions at work to provide a normalizing effect that reassures my brain that everything is okay. Take those away, and throw in a round of really stressful and destabilizing layoffs, and suddenly I become Anxious Guy.

By the way, I absolutely adore the bridge to this song. (The part that starts “Maybe deep down inside…”) I find bridges fascinating in general, the way they’re like a miniature new and different song inside the bigger song, and this one just really grabs me.

14. Adele – Cold Shoulder
Continuing the insecurity theme, this felt like the right Adele song to pick for my 2020. It’s not even that people were giving me the cold shoulder. (I don’t THINK?!? :P) I just spent way too much time worried about it. I’m still working on coping with that one.

15. Buffalo Springfield – For What It’s Worth
What is all this anyway? It’s paranoia, that’s what. So here’s “For What It’s Worth”, the best song I know about paranoia. On the personal level, my paranoia strikes deep, but isn’t really justified. On the larger cultural level, I’m not so sure. There’s the erosion of trust I talked about in #2. There’s the general bone-chill about how much support there still is for the lying, bullshitting, racist, bullying Toddler-In-Chief and the party that bent its knee to his every whim. As Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, “Overall, as somebody who was a born populist, I’ve got a little less faith in my neighbors than I had four years ago.” And then, of course, there are the police.

The comparison that keeps coming to my mind, that I haven’t heard anyone else make yet, is to the Catholic church. Both the church and the police in America are these institutions that many of us (at least, the “us” at less danger of victimization) grow up seeing as helpful, honorable, and virtuous. In both cases, there are some fundamental problems with the concept and structure of the institution itself, but they also perform a great deal of good in the world. In both cases, becoming part of the priesthood or fraternity requires an amount of self-sacrifice that is reflexively seen as noble, but that carries within it seeds that can bloom into full-blown evil.

In the movie Spotlight, but there’s a moment in it that has always stuck with me. The team of reporters is just figuring out the scope of the abuse that has happened in the Boston diocese, and they’re on the phone with a researcher (a former priest and current psychotherapist) who has spent years gathering data about it. The researcher says “Look, the church wants us to believe that it’s a few bad apples, but it’s a much bigger problem than that.” How much bigger? “Well, based on the research, I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”

That’s big. I think something similar is at work with cops, race, and violence. In both cases, the evil behavior (I don’t think there’s any reasonable way out of that descriptor) is so shocking and repugnant when it comes to light that it permanently cracks my ability to ever trust that institution again. But even worse than that, in both cases, the institution does absolutely everything it possibly can to ensure that the perpetrators of that evil escape detection and escape the consequences. Over, and over, and over again, to the tune of thousands of cases. Thousands of innocent victims raped, molested, traumatized, killed. How in the hell is anybody supposed to trust them after that? In both cases, for me, that combination taints the institution so thoroughly that I don’t think it can be redeemed. We have to demolish it and start over with something fundamentally different.

Now, I know there’s about as much chance of doing that with the police as there is with the church. But I believe that there’s a version of it that could be as much a godsend to the police as to marginalized communities. What if we had another kind of first responder, someone trained to deal with issues of mental illness and addiction? After all, we don’t send police to fires. We don’t send them to epileptic seizures. We don’t expect a single kind of responder to have to deal with everything. What if we saved the police for, y’know, CRIME, and created a new role to take over some of the stuff we’re currently asking armed, uniformed officers of the state to take on, despite the fact that they’re trained much more for situations that require force, and therefore tend to bring it to situations that don’t when they’re sent there?

Okay, that was a long digression, wasn’t it? Anyway, great song, right? Moving on.

16. Indigo Girls – Pendulum Swinger
Amy and Emily were crucial to Laura and I this year. For a while there, as Look Long was getting ready to come out, they were doing weekly or near-weekly livestreams, and for each one we would joyfully gather ’round the screen, find a way to turn up the music, and feel like we were hanging out with old friends. The one they did where they were “playing for tips” to raise money for their crew, was an utter high point for me. Hearing them play stuff I’d never heard them do before — Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, Elton John’s “Love Song” and “Holiday Inn” — OMG it was so wonderful.

They featured this one in their “parking lot” concert in October, with Emily introducing it as just, “This is a song about change.” It felt like a little prayer, or a little wish that came true.

17. Amy Ray – Tear It Down
This was another special moment from that concert. I love how Amy here grapples with how she genuinely loves where she grew up and the traditions that shaped her, while still unshakably rejecting the racism and hate that is inextricably interwoven with that past. The studio version is a little sweeter and more subdued, but her solo acoustic live performance of it was just electrifying.

18. Mudcrutch – I Forgive It All
The Mudcrutch albums are hidden gems in Tom Petty’s catalog, and this one in particular is special, because it’s the last studio recording that Petty did before his death. For this mix, the Indigo Girls lift me out of fear and paranoia, into hope and resolution. Petty provides the final piece: forgiveness.

19. Stevie Nicks – Show Them The Way
Hope, resolution, and forgiveness all blend into Stevie’s 2020 song. Besides “All This Time”, this is the other song in this mix that I strongly associate with its video. That video, directed by Cameron Crowe, blends black and white footage from the 1960s into black and white footage from 2020 and points in between, drawing a clear line from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Lives Matter movement. And over it all, Stevie prays for all of us to find our way to a better future. Invoking the icons of 60s dreams — JFK, RFK, MLK — she tries to dream us back to ourselves. And Crowe, piling powerful images on top of each other with increasing urgency, ends with a simple message: “Vote”. In October of 2020, it felt like exactly the magic we needed.

20. Prince – 1999
When it came out, this song was about an apocalyptic future. Listening to it now, it feels like Prince was only 20 years off with the “party over, oops, out of time” description, and 1999 sounds like a pretty good place to be. The mood of it is of jubilation even through devastation, and I think we could use a little of that. Here’s to a brighter 2021.

Introducing >INVENTORY

I’ve created a new blog called >INVENTORY. It will (eventually) house everything I’ve ever written about interactive fiction. I’m planning to add to it every day for the next… couple hundred days at least? We’ll see. The first post explains why.

Three Games By Steph Cherrywell

In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.

Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!

Cover art for Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers From Beyond

Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.

And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.

That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”

The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.

Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:

1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.

Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.

The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.

Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.

My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.

All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.

Cover art for Zozzled

Zozzled

Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.

Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:

The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):

If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.

This description of a refrigerator:

This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.

And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:

Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.

It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.

So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.

The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:

1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.

Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.

Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.

Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.

Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.

On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.

Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.

Cover art for Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.

And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.

Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.

Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.

Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.

The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.

The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.

I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.

Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.

Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.

With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.

Thoughts on the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)

Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.

As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.

I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:

By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”

Logo for the 2015 IF Comp

Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.

So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.

So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.

I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)

Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:

I THINK THE WAVES ARE WATCHING ME by Bob McCabe

I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.

Build: 106

(G)etting Started.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.
(C)redits/Thanks.

Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.

I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family

  • Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
  • Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
  • Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
  • Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
  • Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
  • Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
  • Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
  • Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
  • Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
  • Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
  • Ending choice, also moving.
  • I wish there was a way to “undo”

Rating: 7.7

NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish

  • “Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
  • You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
  • “Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
  • It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
  • From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
  • “You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
  • “Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
  • “A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
  • Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
  • It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.

Rating: 7.4

ONAAR by Robert DeFord

I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.

I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:

As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”

“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:

“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”

“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.

This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.

Rating: 8.1

KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney

  • “You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
  • “Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
  • ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
  • “On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
  • Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
  • “You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
  • “but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
  • “This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
  • “Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
  • “Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
  • CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.

Rating: 4.9

LAID OFF FROM THE SYNESTHESIA FACTORY by Katherine Morayati

I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:

Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.

Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”

Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.

So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.

Rating: 6.3

TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover

  • “Turn the page” style interactivity
  • Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
  • Oh ugh animal abuse.
  • Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
  • All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.

Rating: 1.7

THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg

Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\PLAY.py", line 26, in
story.start()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 82, in intro
raw_input()
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined

Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash

  • Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
  • A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
  • This is a tough slog.
  • This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
  • “on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
  • OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
  • “In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
  • Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
  • “He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
  • One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
  • Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.

Rating: 2.9

Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.

Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.

2013 XYZZY Best Individual PC review

I’ve belatedly realized that I never posted about this here, but like last year, I was recruited to write reviews for the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews.” Unlike last year, the category I chose had only one game in it: Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura was the sole nominee, because it was so good that no other game garnered more than a single nominating vote.

What made it so good? That’s the topic of my review.

2012 XYZZY Best Writing reviews

I participated in the “Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Reviews” project this year, reviewing the writing of the games that were nominated for the Best Writing category. I was rather out of step with the XYZZY voters, it turns out.

The reviews are posted at the XYZZY awards site.

IF-Review: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Final entry in the 2012 XYZZY best games review project — Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Adam Thornton upends the medium of interactive fiction with a work that’s simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can’t imagine anyone else even trying.

IF-Review: Cryptozookeeper

Here’s another entry in the series of 2012 XYZZY nominees game reviews: Robb Sherwin’s Cryptozookeeper. It’s the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I’ve yet seen. It’s gonzo, it’s funny, it’s extreme, and it’s shambolic, and it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen anyone accomplish.

IF-Review: Six

IF-Review has published the second in my series reviewing all the Best Game XYZZY nominees of 2012. The game this time is Wade Clarke’s Six. I don’t think I’ve ever been so charmed by an IF game.

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