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.

Videogames for Humans (ed. Merritt Kopas)

VFHcvrI’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.

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Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris)

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.10.49 PM I’m not a big reader of celebrity memoirs, but this one came my way for Christmas: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography takes the form of a choose your own adventure book, in which Neil’s life story, together with some made up incidents clearly recognizable as fantasy, are narrated as happening to “you”.

This sounds like a gimmick, since the set of people who know of Neil Patrick Harris because of Dr. Horrible or How I Met Your Mother likely has a good overlap with the set of people who retain warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings about Choose Your Own Adventure books. But it turns out that it’s formally interesting as a CYOA piece, too.

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Hollywood Visionary (Aaron Reed, Choice of Games)

hollywood_visionaryHollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.

So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.

To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.

At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.

Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.

Now the more spoilery bit.

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Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House: Book 2 (The Marino Family)

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The first episode of Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House was an IFComp entry in 2013. (Here’s my review.) It is a choice-based Undum children’s story about a group of foster children who go to live in the home of the eponymous Mrs. Wobbles, and the whole story is being told through a magical book. Reading as an adult, one has a distinct sense of not being the target audience, most of all because of the slightly teasing tone the narrator adopts towards the reader.

This installment, Book 2, picks up with the children transported to a pirate land. We again have the framing narrative of a magic book, and then at one point Mildred (one of the children) can herself tell about a memory of hers, so the layers of story and other-reality get fairly thick.

As before, Book 2 is fairly linear, with just a few points of significant branching, and a few others in which you’re effectively picking the order of operations for doing a series of tasks that all have to be completed. And as before, the story incorporates ludicrous poetry, elaborate similes, and wordplay. A few examples that give a sense of the narrative tone:

The front was guarded by a big pirate henchman, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there, as if he were missing his favorite TV show and perhaps even his favorite episode of his favorite TV show.

…and when it comes to the way things work in the sort-of-make-believe, sort-of-true universe of the children:

‘Take this, then.’ And Mrs. Wobbles handed Mildred a giant rubber heart. ‘It’s a shield,’ said Mrs. Wobbles, ‘and an eraser.’

And there are quite handsome illustrations in a sort of woodcut style:

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Book 2 is not the end, either. There’s apparently meant to be at least one more in this series. All the same, Book 2 more or less stands alone, and it would be possible to read it knowing little more than I’ve just outlined.

To go into more detail about the story will require some spoilers, however.

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And the Robot Horse You Rode In On (Anna Anthropy), with some thoughts about Spider and Web

robothorseWriting about Videogames for Humans, Robert Yang noted some ways in which he found it a useful but not comprehensive guide to the games it covers. His review includes this passage:

Or when Cat Fitzpatrick plays Anna Anthropy’s “And The Robot Horse You Rode In On” (merely one of TWO lesbian westerns featured in this book!) and Fitzpatrick does not know, or does not care, that this is probably a remake of Andrew Plotkin’s “Spider and Web” except with sexy lady fighting instead of overly intricate Cold War futurism. With that background, you can read Anthropy’s changes and simplifications to the original plot device as an admonishment of the hardline parser-based interactive fiction establishment and their historic ambivalence about accepting Twine as interactive fiction. It’s as if she’s saying, “look, Twine can do what the canon parser IF does, and with less bullshit and more style.”

[Edited to add: Anna says Robot Horse is not a remake; see the comments section. I’ve left the original discussion here, but it’s worth having that fact up front.]

I’d never played And the Robot Horse You Rode In On, and it had somehow escaped my awareness among Anna Anthropy’s games, so when I read this blog post, I immediately went to try it out. And —

Yes, this is the same story; also, it is not at all the same story. The contrast throws both Anna’s and zarf’s work into such high relief that it makes me grin. In addition to which, Robot Horse is possibly my favorite of Anna’s Twine work that I’ve played so far.

But to talk about this I will have to spoil both games a lot. If you haven’t played Spider and Web and you’re planning to do so one day, you don’t want it spoiled before you play, trust me; if you haven’t played And the Robot Horse…, it’s short and you should probably go try it now. (Subject to the usual warnings: like a lot of Anna’s other work, it contains references to sexual activity, and while its primary intent is not pornographic, it may not be suitable for workplace reading. However, this discussion will not itself be unsafe for work.)

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