Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

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The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

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Conversations We Have In My Head (Squinky)

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Conversations We Have In My Head is a very short, real-time dialogue game by Squinky, describing a conversation between a genderqueer protagonist (Quarky) and their ex (Lex). As the player, you’re choosing responses Lex can make to Quarky’s revelations and questions; new options come and go on the screen. This gives the game a smooth, relaxing quality — this is an odd analogy, perhaps, but it felt a bit like a driving game to me, in which you’re looking at the scenery sliding by and deciding which way you wanted to steer, but didn’t have any brakes.

If you want, you can be totally silent and just listen to Quarky monologue about the changes in their life. Or you can offer lots of feedback, or even more or less wrest the conversation around to yourself on a regular basis, reminding Quarky of the differences between you and of harm done in the past. I like the way this flows, though after about the fifth playing I started to wish I could fast-forward to important junctions in order to try some of the alternatives. Still, the game is so compact that even re-listening to the same opening doesn’t slow things down too much.

Squinky includes the following paragraph in their description of the game:

Many of us have voices in our heads that constantly remind us of our perceived failures and inadequacies. Sometimes, those voices appear to us in the form of a once-important, now-estranged person from our past. This is a game about having one of those conversations with that voice in your head, and the many ways it can go.​​

Despite the conflict implied in this paragraph, I found that the majority of the conversations I generated with Conversations We Have In My Head were net positives, rather than negative reflections on the protagonist or on what happened in the past. Perhaps growing up and coming to know themselves better has opened the possibility that the characters might be kinder to one another and keep things in better perspective than they used to. There are of course some exceptions.

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Neon Haze (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

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Neon Haze is this week’s release at Sub-Q Magazine.

A side note: If you are interested in IF, especially Twine IF with a speculative fiction focus, you should be paying attention to Sub-Q: it’s an ambitious venture, a website with stories and interviews that pays pro rates for interactive fiction. It provides some resources for matching storytellers with people who can implement content for them, if the author doesn’t already have those skills. The guidelines would allow for parser IF, but possibly they simply haven’t been offered any so far that met the other requirements. Sub-Q is paid for by memberships and donations, but it’s free to read; I’d like to see it continue, though, so I’ve signed up.

So, Neon Haze. It is the story of someone living in a dark-rainy-night-plus-neon kind of environment. The protagonist suffers from Vessel Syndrome, a condition that produces a sense of not really being oneself, or not being in one’s own body; a sense of being occupied by other spirits. Sometimes they seem to dissociate. Often they use language drawn from therapy sessions to describe their experience.

One of the game’s key moments comes when you’re allowed to choose which of two people you were in a scene: someone safe and surrounded by friends, or an outcast who has gotten into a fight? Whichever you choose, the game does not contradict you, and either way provides an interesting way of understanding the situation. Perhaps the protagonist has always been an outsider and imagining themselves as someone different and safe was a way to escape that experience. Or perhaps the protagonist comes from a background of safety that is now lost, one in which they acted entitled and did not understand how difficult things could be elsewhere, on the outside.

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The story is supported by CSS effects that make the links glow on the page against a dark cityscape, and by Neotenomie’s music, which loops and hums with seductive energy. Sometimes, at least for me, the music was more than a mood-setting device. It communicated hope, or perhaps some not-quite-hope will to live, even when the text itself was describing a bleak situation.

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IntroComp 2015

IntroComp is a yearly IF competition which invites participants to send in the first part of a game. Judges vote on how much they would be interested in playing the rest of the submitted game, and authors who finish and release their pieces within a year are eligible for a prize based on where they placed. The games for 2015 are currently available, and judging is open through August 21.

Below, thoughts on the pieces I ranked highest.

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Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)

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What’s Cool from Coliloquy: In Witch’s Brew, Lily and Logan’s fate is already decided, but Heidi explores several different possible pathways for how they get there. She shares scenes that wouldn’t normally fit in a book format and gives readers more precious moments between the two young lovers. As the series progresses, you’ll see some normal narrative forms, interspersed with smaller scenes, alternate points of view, and a lot of “what if” scenarios. (Source.)

Coliloquy was a company creating interactive ebooks for the Kindle, which was semi-recently sold to digital publishing platform Vook. Witch’s Brew is the first book of a YA fantasy line of theirs. I’d encountered some articles about Coliloquy in the past, which made it sound as though the main selling point of the platform was that it was able to deliver reader metrics, not that it supported a significantly richer or different reading experience than other interactive fiction platforms out there.

The premise of Witch’s Brew is that the teenage witch Lily is preparing for the Gleaning, a mystical contest/battle against an evil warlock. Long ago light magic was apportioned to witches and dark magic to warlocks, and the Gleaning makes possible a redistribution of powers, which everyone apparently accepts is necessary even though the witches and warlocks who lose are Never Seen Again. But when Lily meets a breath-takingly sexy teen warlock who is able to speak to her telepathically, she begins to question whether she has been told the whole truth, and whether she and her hunky counterpart might not be the key to saving the future of magic. There are enchanted tattoos.

Side-characters include the beautiful, wise, shape-shifting mother figures of the coven (though there are some hints that all may not be completely as it seems there); Logan’s voodoo-using warlock buddy Chance (seemingly sort of a nice guy, though he doesn’t get a lot of character development); Lily’s angelic little sister Daisy, whom I could not stop picturing as Dawn Summers; and Jacob, the lead warlock, who has red-rimmed eyes, exhales toxic dust, and eats eggs whole, like a snake. He runs a pharmaceutical company, in case you weren’t sure of his moral alignment.

Here are some representative quotes:

“Girls,” she addressed us with flashing Indigo eyes, “join me, please.”

After the long hike, the magic eucalyptus smacked my system like a jolt of espresso.

The smell of beer mixed with the jubilant sounds of teenage revelry…

It’s a genre exercise, and it’s directed at people who fantasize about moody 16-year-old boys with chiseled abs and about being able to speak magical Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite as far out of my preference zone as zombie horror, but this is not a genre where I tend to hang out just to enjoy the scenery, and this book is very much for people who do want to linger there. The marketing quote above is actually a pretty clear explanation of what interactivity is for in this book: giving you more “precious moments” between Lily and Logan.

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Bloom (Caelyn Sandel)

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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.