IF Comp 2015: Much Love, BJP (Megan Stevens)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

Much Love, BJP is a short, photo-illustrated Twine piece about the fictional life of a war correspondent. It takes only about ten minutes to read completely, and contains minimal branching.

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 4.14.01 PM

I have to confess that I wasn’t expecting great things from this piece when I opened it up. The tagline “Examining Gender and War through Interactive Fiction” and the information that this had been showcased in a school setting made me expect a heavy-handed documentary piece created by someone with very little previous interactive fiction experience. Those can still be worth writing — there are lots of valuable ways to use interactive fiction in a classroom — but historically they don’t tend to appeal that much to an IF Comp audience, and they can be a bit of a slog to play.

In addition, this piece uses the standard Twine blue-on-black template — and while there are some excellent games that don’t change up their CSS, experience has taught me that standard-template Twine games are disproportionately likely to be careless or poorly written. So that’s another preconception that I have to consciously fight with this piece.

The night before Polzin was due to fly back toward Syria for the second time in less than a year, she sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed and read to her until one in the morning.

“I felt like a bear that night. I could sniff her all over and tell, yes, this is my cub…”

What’s actually inside this packaging is a more restrained and skillful piece than I would have guessed. There is a constant tension between the public aspect of BJP’s persona — supported by the rather documentary style of the Twine, and the fact that it quotes from fictional interviews and articles — and her private relationships, which are suggested but never completely filled in for us. In relatively few moves, the story conveys that she does not conform to the stereotypes of good wife or good mother (at the very least) but that nonetheless she loved and was loved by her family; her relationship with a female war photographer is also kept intentionally a little ambiguous.

There are moments where the story still takes a polemical turn: the segment about the injustice of reporting of war rapes felt like a standard angry rant. A justifiable standard angry rant! Definitely. But one largely uninflected by the personality of its protagonist or the specifics of her individual situation.

But there were other moments — what I liked best about the piece — in which we get little details that ring surprising and true. The contrast between toddler-proofing a kitchen and watching an execution in a middle eastern country; the careful moves made by BJP’s husband to frame their relationship in a particular way. The photographs, meanwhile, are all of real events and contribute to the nearly-documentary flavor of the story.

Finally: I found this story most rewarding when I read it slowly and ignored the UI aspects as much as possible in favor of the content. This is more or less the opposite of the way some Twine has trained us to read — I had just come from another piece that fed me one sentence or even one noun phrase at a time, with color changes and sound effects and music. So I was still in the mode of expecting to be able to gulp down the meaning of a scene at a glance, and to have a multi-sensory experience. Much Love, BJP works better if you read it like a static short story, give yourself time to understand sometimes obscure references tucked inside paragraphs, and don’t sweat the typography.

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