The rules begin thus: “A Wish for Something Better is a single-player roleplaying ritual.” This is a work with light rules, designed to be played alone. It is meant to create a place of imagination in a focused way that serves the player’s emotional needs, a way of imagining specifically rather than vaguely what escape or comfort would look and feel like. You name something that you’re not currently happy with, and then imagine what could be added to your imaginary sanctuary that would reverse that feeling.
Is it a roleplaying game? It’s certainly a world-building exercise, and to the extent that you’re projecting yourself into this other place, maybe that’s roleplaying. And some roleplaying games certainly edge across the border between game and ritual. Avery McDaldno’s Brave Sparrow and Teen Witch come to mind.
There are elements of “A Wish for Something Better” that suggest a spellbook, though these are primarily about setting a mood, lighting candles and making a thoughtful space. Contrast @LilSpellbook, a bot by Harry Giles that offers rituals like “A spell to iron clothes: crumble your yearning’s name and fenugreek while dancing, and touch it to your forehead.” or “A spell to bring laughter: pulverise a weighty bond, and rub into your chest.” Half the time these seem freighted with metaphor in a plausible way; the rest of the time, not so much.
Because this thing is so personal, it’s hard to describe too much what it is like to play. So I’ll simply say this: I found that part of its effectiveness lay in helping to distinguish the things I could reasonably hope to do something about, and those I cannot; for some of my concerns there is no fix I could possibly execute, and therefore the only way to furnish my imagined space was to place reminders of my own limits.
Bloom is a substantial Twine story by Caelyn Sandel, being issued in episodes. (Because I’m writing some blog posts in advance of travel, there are only the prologue and two chapters available at writing time, but by the time you read this, the third chapter may well be available.) It tells the story of Andy Blumenthal as he discovers that he is rightly a woman called Cordy.
It’s a longer, less visceral piece than Caelyn’s previous Cis Gaze, playing out as a more substantial series of scenes — though there are still some passages with a gut-punch effect, as when the protagonist encounters some particularly unpleasant humor that hits her vulnerabilities.
The protagonist is not just her situation, though. She also has a family with its own interesting dynamics; a roommate and coworkers who are rounded enough not to be mere markers. Both Cordy and her sister Rachel have endearing styles of eating, making sure that textures and flavors are properly distributed. Cordy’s mother is active in domestic violence prevention, laudably, but it’s not at all clear how she’s going to react to Cordy’s gender identity. Cordy herself has a hard time explaining what’s happening to her, since she barely understands it herself at first, and it doesn’t match with the trans narratives she knows; she feels like she should have recognized herself as a woman back in childhood or puberty, not at the age of almost 30.
The structure is very linear. The player can explore a bit, and can sometimes pick a flavor choice of more or less significance, but the plot doesn’t appear to branch significantly (which, frankly, might be the only sensible way to do an episodic Twine piece).
Nonetheless, the interaction lends quite a lot to the experience, especially the sensation of being on the spot when Cordy feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know what she wants to do.
I’m not exactly getting to this one in a timely fashion. Long Live the Queen is a visual novel/sim that has been out for a couple of years now, and people have been telling me to play it, and I’ve just been somewhat overwhelmed by how hard it is to get through. But now I have managed to win (once) and die (a lot of times), which is supposedly the correct proportion for this game.
The premise is that you are 14-year-old Elodie, the princess of a kingdom faced with internal and external strife, and you have to live through the 40 weeks until you turn 15 and are crowned. Every week you choose two subjects to study from a bewildering array (everything from Accounting to Divination, Elegance to Archery). Every weekend, you pick a weekend activity that affects your mood, which in turn affects your aptitude for different subjects. And each weekend you also face certain specialized story choices, which follow a consistent schedule. Winning is largely about learning which challenges are going to come up when and which skills you’ll need to have in order to overcome them, and training accordingly.
Quite a bit has already been written about LLtQ: about how hard it is, about how it compares with Princess Maker and Varicella. I want to talk about the cruelty stat.
This sounds like it’s going to be spoilery, but it’s really only mildly so: there are so many moving parts in this game that even a detailed analysis can leave a lot still to be uncovered.
The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.
It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.
I’ve mentioned the existence of this book before, but only recently did I get my own contributor copies of Videogames for Humans, an anthology of Twine playthroughs annotated by their players. (Here’s Robert Yang talking about the anthology; here’s me talking about Robert Yang talking about the anthology.) It’s a big chunky paperback, devoted to the unexpected task of demonstrating an interactive art form on paper, through transcripts.
Here’s something excellent from this book: Naomi Clark’s playthrough of Horse Master. It takes much longer to read than the game takes to play for the first time, because it is digging into details of wording and implementation. It reveals the game’s innards and explains them. It is also both lovely and funny. You should absolutely play Horse Master yourself first: you’ll enjoy both the game and the analysis more if you experience them in that order.
Here’s another: Riley McLeod’s playthrough of Benji Bright’s Fuck That Guy, about the experience of being a queer trans man playing a game about cis gay sex, and the ways that that does and does not feel familiar, the things that are inviting and the things that are off-putting.
Or: Squinky on Jeremy Lonien and Dominik Johann’s The Message. “I don’t know what it is about pianos in slapstick comedy,” they write, and then go on to explain what it is, which is awesome.
Or: Patricia Hernandez on Elizabeth Sampat’s Nineteen, which is about a suicide attempt that failed, and if it hadn’t failed then, among many other more important losses, I would never have met Elizabeth and played Deadbolt with her.
Or: Anna Anthropy writes a charming response to Michael Brough’s Twine about losing a scarf, a story that sounds trivial but in fact carries considerable feeling, about the importance of things in our lives and the difference between the things that we work on and invest in personally and the things that are fabricated for us by the machines of industrialized capitalism. This resonated with me.
Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.
Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.
At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.