IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Susan Patrick on Capsule II


This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Reviewing PaperBlurt’s Capsule II is Susan Patrick, a scriptwriter for Ubisoft who hopes to create her own Twine game soon.

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IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: JJ Gadd on Crossroads


This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Our reviewer this time is J.J. Gadd. Her five-book Lunation Series utilizes hyperlinks to create a choose-your own adventure style experience for readers, allowing them to choose between travelling with one character or another at various points in the narrative. Out now through Harper Voyager. www.lunationseries.com 

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Problem Attic (Liz Ryerson)

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At the PRACTICE conference last weekend, I talked over lunch with some fellow attendees about the fact that understanding games as art requires something from the players, something that the culture of games has only weakly and occasionally embraced. Specifically, if games are a product, then we can expect them to cater to us, to make themselves accessible; we feel justified in discarding them if they aren’t.

But when it comes to art, we frequently expect to have to put in extra effort: to sit in front of a painting for a while before we start to understand it better, to reread a poem several times, to check out the footnotes on a play that contains many now-lost references. Art asks us to be patient with the difficult, open to the strange. It asks us to assume the artist has something to say, even if we don’t immediately see how.

I try to bring this approach to the works I play. Sometimes playing that way straight-up exceeds my personal resources. This was especially evident during IF Comp, when I was already stretched, and was not able to give as many extra hours of investigation to long-form games as their authors might have hoped. Sometimes, too, what I lack is not time but the right context or the right life experience or the right type of games literacy to interpret something. An author this Comp asked me whether I’d perceived certain themes in their work, and I had to say no, not really – but that this wasn’t proof that the themes weren’t there or that they’d been mishandled. It was possible that I’m just the wrong person to see them.


A couple of hours after this lunch conversation, Brian Moriarty gave a talk about the history of interactive narrative that highlighted a number of games and works not usually mentioned in this connection: Wander, the IF system invented prior to Adventure; Kinoautomat, an interactive Czech film from the 1960s that ultimately demonstrated the users’ lack of real agency; Mr. Payback, another interactive film that sounds dire (and justly scorned by Roger Ebert [look around 16:55]); the Brainiac, a circuitry toy that could be wired up to perform as a sort of automated CYOA device, and featured such gems as an interactive quiz to determine the user’s gender (oh boy), and an interactive story about pirates.

Immediately after Brian’s presentation, Leigh Alexander spoke about the need to preserve cultural memory: to recognize, cover, and discuss important games and important criticism; to remember advances made so that we don’t have to remake them over and over.

These points – about people’s willingness to dig into something in order to find the challenging ideas there, and about our collective ability to remember and build on discoveries – stuck with me.

I was about to have occasion to think about them a lot more. The previous day, I’d written a post about the experience of agency in games, and the fact that stories of disempowerment still miss out on addressing some of the things I think are unhelpful about power fantasies. I mentioned an interest in the middle ground where the player has little power but is still implicated in the system.

That post soon got a response from Liz Ryerson, which is worth looking at in full. She notes among other things that her game Problem Attic is about some of these very issues, but that here was a blog post that didn’t acknowledge her game’s existence or show awareness that such a thing was even possible. (I want you to read Liz’s tweet thread partly because it’s thoughtful and nuanced: I don’t want to speak over her, and it’s hard to summarize with full justice.)

This made me go back and re-scan my original post to make sure I hadn’t actually said that no such games existed. I try never to make statements like that: I’m frequently exasperated by other people’s sweeping-but-ill-informed statements about what cannot be done with interactive narrative, or what has never been accomplished. And I think I didn’t, precisely – I was saying I don’t know how to do this, and I want to know – but I can see how it might have read as a blanket statement.

Anyway, here plainly was something I needed to look at. I had heard of Problem Attic but not played it. This is not surprising. I’m terrible at platformers. The only platformer of significant size that I’ve ever finished was Braid, and that was because it had undone one of the core aspects of platforming. Even some very short games, I’ve had to watch on YouTube if they were at all hard. I wasn’t sanguine that any amount of Play Games As Art attitude would make up for my truly awful reflexes.

Helpfully, Liz supplied a couple gameplay-and-commentary videos of Problem Attic that she thought did a decent job of unfolding what is going on, one short piece from CronoManiac42 and one rather longer from Brendan Vance. In investigating the game, I also read/viewed Ryerson’s RPS interview with Robert Yang, her thoughts on the game for Gamasutra, her talk “The Abstract and the Feminine”, and Brendan Vance’s written discussion of the piece.

With the help of those resources, I’m going to write about Problem Attic even though I haven’t been able to finish it myself. I’m relying on the expertise of other players both for the experience of gameplay in this case and for the rhetoric of platformers in general. Therefore, please frame everything I say below with “as far as I can tell,” or “from what I can see,” as needed. Nonetheless, in this case, I’m fairly sure it’s better to discuss the game in this limited way than not to discuss it at all.

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IF for the Lengthening Nights: Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson); Witches and Wardrobes (Anna Anthropy); Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

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Late fall hasn’t always been the greatest time for me. Like a lot of people, I’m responsive to the amount of sun in my life; on top of that, when I was a junior academic, that was the point at which real panic set in about finding a job for the next year.

A couple of those years I was living in the midwest, too, as a really unprepared coast-native. My colleagues in Minnesota took pity on me and gave me a down jacket to wear, a hand-me-down from one of their wives, because I had somehow not grasped that it was going to start snowing and keep snowing and not stop with the snow for the next four or five months. The jacket was enormous and teal. I looked like an 80s-themed reskin of the Michelin Man. As the winter went on, I also needed gloves and silk long johns and a ski mask because, with wind chill, it would get to twenty below sometimes on the way to work. I didn’t have a car. Getting groceries was a problem. I wasn’t sure how much I should be running the heater because, having just moved into this apartment, I didn’t know how efficient the system was and I was afraid of getting slapped with a huge bill I wouldn’t be able to pay.

Now this was all hard to navigate, because things that make me sad include: being thousands of miles from my family, friends, and significant other; being uncertain about my job future; getting very little sunlight; being cold a lot; being hungry a lot; falling down on the ice and bruising myself (at least once per trip). Oh, and I had a fun medical emergency at one point, too.

That was the year I started taking a survivalist approach to mental health. One of the stupid things about sadness is that it gets harder to remember how to make yourself less sad. I gathered my anti-sadness devices and I put them in one cabinet in the kitchen: chocolate, favorite books and candles to light and gifts from friends and things that made me happy to look at. I made anti-sadness playlists. I had a perfume, essence of blood orange, that I’d wear for protection when things were particularly bad. (“For protection”: I’m not ascribing magical powers to it, but even just finding the desire to protect yourself can be important, depending on your state of mind.)

On the front of the emergency anti-sadness cabinet, I taped a postcard from a French town where I’d spent a week with my partner. I didn’t quite go so far as to write “Hey, dumbass, if you are sad, >OPEN CABINET” — but that was the meaning of the card, an inescapable in-plain-sight reminder in case I was too sad-stupid to remember on my own.

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of introducing a couple of games that touch on some of those feelings and that (at least for me) are ultimately comforting.

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Sleep No More (Punchdrunk)

Sleep No More is an immersive theatre and dance production based on Macbeth that has been running in New York for a number of years. Recently they extended their run to include a time I was actually going to be in the city, which meant that I could see it, finally; until now, the only Punchdrunk show I’d been able to see was Against Captain’s Orders, which I felt was fun but too controlled and linear.

The same criticism certainly can’t be applied here. Sleep No More takes place in the big, multistory “McKittrick Hotel” (not an actual hotel). The audience is masked, but free to wander. The whole place has been dressed as a complex set, with furniture and scenery features representing everything from a graveyard at night to an early 20th century mental institution. Scenes from Macbeth are staged as physical vignettes with no or almost no dialogue: these vignettes are mimed or (in some cases) danced, often in slow motion. There were some additional vignettes where it wasn’t clear to me how what I was seeing related to the plot of Macbeth, as well. Indeed, understanding a plot wasn’t really the point of the experience, as far as I could tell.

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Dynamic Fiction via Some Examples

“Dynamic fiction” is a term suggested by Caelyn Sandel some months ago to describe her work, especially but not limited to her serial story Bloom.

As I understand it (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting too much here), the term is chosen specifically to get around some of the expectations people have when they hear the phrase “interactive fiction.” Dynamic fiction allows minimal plot branching, if any: the reader is not being allowed to change the course of events, which may be completely linear. From a CYOA structures perspective, we’re talking about structures that either look like a friendly gauntlet without delayed consequence, or structures that actually literally are a straight line.

Instead, the interaction in a dynamic fiction story is doing something else: it’s providing pacing, it’s creating a sense of identification with the protagonist, it’s eliciting complicity with what happens or demonstrating the futility of the protagonist’s experience.

To answer the question “why isn’t this just a short work of static fiction?”, I’ve picked out what I consider the best exemplars of each of the major dynamic fiction effects I’m aware of.

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