The Toaster With Two Brains (Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual)

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Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual is a website for retro-futuristic illustrated choice-based fiction, set in a shiny chrome and leather universe with lots of Deco machines and mad science. Choices often run to 1-3 options, and there’s an always-present inventory list, reminiscent of but significantly fancier than ChooseYourStory games:

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The majority of the choices are exploratory: you are choosing which objects to examine and which questions to ask of NPCs. Very occasionally you’re offered choices that seem like they might affect events, but the plot strands rejoin almost immediately, via standard sorts of agency-denial: you ask a character to come with you, but they refuse; you attempt to head the wrong direction, but it’s blocked. Even the inventory is a bit deceptive: games with inventory usually let you accumulate and drop things in ways that are likely to make a difference later in the story, but as far as I can tell, your inventory is very much determined for you, and it’s impossible to get to a particular story branch with any variation in your inventory list.

You also several times have the option of following the male or the female protagonist, getting a significant portion of the story from their perspective. Later, when the characters meet up again, you get filled in on what happened to the character you did not follow. The overall effect is that the story does contain significant branching, since you see different nodes if you’re playing as Gwen than if you’re playing as Nat, but that branching provides reader agency rather than player agency.

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French Comp 2015

FrenchComp is a yearly competition for French-language games, usually with just a handful of entrants: the French IF community is not large. For someone with rusty French skills, playing through the games can be a bit of a challenge — I read French a lot better than I speak it, and coming up with commands can be a stretch, especially if the game wants a non-standard verb that isn’t covered in this French IF manual. This year, though, I had the good fortune of playing with ClubFloyd, where we could share verb guesses and reinforce one another’s understanding.

IF in languages other than English doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as I’d like within the English-speaking community, so I’d like to talk about the games here, but I should also say that I’m not really equipped to judge them in quite the same way I might review English IF. I can’t really judge French prose style; I suspect I struggled in a few places that were down to the quality of my linguistic skills rather than the quality of the design; and then there may be different conventions in French IF. (One of them definitely seems to be a love affair with “press any key to continue”. I think there were more “key to continue” pauses in these three games than in the whole of the English IF Comp last year.)

So consider this more of an experience report than a review per se.

It is also spoilerific, since I want to talk about the story endings of a couple of the games. If you are planning to play these works and just haven’t gotten to them yet, you should probably read no further.

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ParserComp: Chlorophyll (and a digression about female characters)

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Chlorophyll is a lighthearted science fiction story by Steph Cherrywell, the author of Jacqueline, Jungle Queen. The premise is that you’re a sentient, mobile plant and have been brought along on a space colonization expedition by your mother, who is trying to discover what’s gone wrong with an abandoned space station. Your need to photosynthesize constantly provides a combined light/hunger puzzle that puts a fresh spin on a pair of rather elderly text adventure tropes.

The other puzzles work pretty well too. Eventually I needed to reach for the walkthrough, but that was mostly for reasons of time and general exhaustion and wanting to get through enough ParserComp games to vote, despite GDC travel. I think in other circumstances I would have gotten through most or all of the puzzles on my own. As in Jacqueline, Jungle Queen, I felt like the author had a pretty much textbook mastery of puzzle/map design for a game this size: you get a confined intro, then access to multiple puzzles at once, then narrow again to a more dramatic couple of endgame puzzles. It may be a standard structure, but it’s a standard for good reasons.

I had a stronger reaction to the story than to the puzzle structure. Except for the photosynthesis concept, the implications of your plant-based origins are developed gently and selectively. Plant culture bears a lot of resemblance to human culture, down to toy stores and hair leaf salons. Plant-person society is apparently all-female: male Xyloids are grown in special gardens and appear to be objectified and possibly non-mobile or even non-sentient.

Meanwhile the protagonist is right around (human-like) puberty, and this was handled with a few well-selected moments and bits of inner monologue. We see a growing desire for independence, a mixed curiosity and disquiet around sex, ambivalent feelings about a position somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and opportunities to play both sides of that divide at different points in the game. In a hair-dressing scene that fills no plot-critical function, the protagonist can explore different ways of presenting herself: does she see herself as glamorous? tomboyish? like a smaller edition of her Mom? And as simple as these options are, they capture something about the personal stakes of such decisions. Plenty of media present young teen girls as obsessed with hair and fashion, but flag up that behavior as shallow or “girly” in a negative sense. From the inside, all this is the opposite of shallow: it’s a whole complicated and confusing process of figuring out who you are as a social being, where you stand relative to sex and adulthood, and what set of signifiers will help you communicate those discoveries — or, if need be, camouflage the things you’re not ready to share.

In an understated way, Chlorophyll understands all that. Its protagonist is, yes, immature in an absolute sense, prone to sullenness and resentment of adults. But she’s doing a good job of handling the life stage she’s at. She’s capable of handling machinery and scientific problems as well as anyone her age could be expected to; she’s perceptive about work culture, sensitive about her changing relationship to her mother, and brave in the face of danger, while still being distinctively a girl and dealing with the kinds of issues that female-identifying people often deal with during puberty.

Then there’s Mom. The protagonist’s mother is put out of action fairly early on, in classic children’s/YA-literature style: the only way to get young people into adventure-hero roles is usually to remove the adults who would normally be responsible for dealing with serious situations. But this is handled reasonably adroitly. And despite the mother’s absence for the majority of the time, there are still a number of references back to her. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the story is mainly about your relationship with her, but there are several points where it is important, and in particular one of the game’s key puzzle rewards doubles as a re-assessment of how Mom thinks of you.

This was enough to make me reflect on how rarely IF touches on mother/daughter relationships at all. There’s a bit of this in Common Ground, and some in my own work Bee, but I’m not thinking of a lot of other examples.

I wouldn’t really have pointed out mother-daughter relationships as a Thing That Is Lacking before playing Chlorophyll, but when I encountered it here, I found it refreshing all out of proportion with what actually happens in this game — which is a pretty good sign of an unsatisfied longing.

This is perhaps related to another wish I had previously identified: I want to play more games featuring middle-aged and older women in established career positions. I might be interested in a show about a female superhero or a female soldier, but I don’t identify with or aspire to those situations. I’m more excited by women who have agency and enjoy respect because of what they’ve built and accomplished, through dedication and talent and social savvy. I know women like this in real life, and am fortunate enough to count some as mentors and friends, but such characters don’t come along as often as I’d like in any of the media I consume. When you do get an older female character in a career role, she’s often portrayed as a stone-cold bitch, a Miranda Priestly or a Patty Hewes, having lost every humane impulse in the process of reaching her position. I want more CJ Creggs, please — and, indeed, more Annalise Keatings, because morally ambiguous though Annalise is, she is motivated by a mix of vulnerability, loyalty, ambition, and (sometimes warped) principle. Her brilliance and her success exist alongside all the other components of a human.

I want more of this kind of representation because, frankly, I am looking for hints. Navigating a career you take seriously often presents special challenges for women. There’s the challenge of finding a sweet spot between being too passive to be effective, and being assertive in ways that many people will accept only from men; between buying into the prevailing work culture too little to be an acceptable fit, or so much that one is doing nothing to make it easier for the generation of women who will come afterward; between being dismissed as unambitious, and being condemned for not being enough of a team player. In some positions and corporate cultures, no sweet spot exists. (See also Mattie Brice on The Lost Woman in Games.) Whether this issue is apparent on the outside or not, it is the subject of a lot of thought, and of many of the conversations I have with other women, both inside and outside the game industry.

So I welcome more examples of how to be, and when something with a mature female character with ambitions beyond family life does come along, I tend to watch/read/play that thing avidly despite whatever other problems it may have.

Anyway, Chlorophyll. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad to see another entry from Steph Cherrywell. I had a few implementation nitpicks I’ll put on the other side of spoiler space, but essentially it’s fun, gently challenging, with a fresh enough concept to keep things interesting, and a handling of its female characters that I found very welcome. And while it’s mostly focused on a pubescent girl, it sketches a few of those elusive mature female characters in the background, not only your mother but all the others who inhabit and run the station.

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Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda (Tara Reed)

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 4.17.41 PMTara Reed’s Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda is a CYOA-style dating novel that initially appears to be a little in the vein of Night of a Thousand Boyfriends or the Date Him, Dump Him series. You’re a twenty-something San Francisco-dwelling PR flak (though we only occasionally see the slightest indication of what you do for a day job) with a couple of sassy gal pals and one obligatory gay friend. You go out for a night on the town and meet a wealthy, jaw-chiseled guy named Nick. What now?

The result is a story that runs fairly long for physical book CYOA — over 330 nodes, most of them at least a couple of pages of narration — and if your relationship runs a substantial course, it might include a hundred of those nodes.

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February Link Assortment

The classic IF magazine SPAG has been, for most of the years since the mid-90s, a source of IF interviews, reviews, and news. The last couple of years it has been on a bit of a hiatus, but it is now under the management of a new editor, Katherine Morayati, and is once again soliciting content. Details are here, and you should get in touch if you have something you’d like to contribute.

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In addition to this resurrection of an old classic, the IF scene has also seen the appearance of an all new IF-focused zine, IFography. The first issue features an interview with Geoff Moore, author of Surface and Witch’s Girl, together with some reviews and essays.

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This is not a new piece, but I just ran across it: Autumn Nicole Bradley’s review of Hanako Games’ Magical Diary covers the game’s pro-adolescent worldview in considerable detail — a view that respects the autonomy and intelligence of young people and treats their decisions as non-failures. Worth a read. It is an article from ZEAL magazine, a Patreon-supported project that focuses on covering less-known games.

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Holly Gramazio has written a poem about game design and bees. My favorite verse:

When designing an FPS for a team of bees,
Make sure that the drones feel valued.
Provide a sniper role for them to fulfil,
Waiting and watching,
Honing their hive-born abilities.

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Maddy Myers writes on the emptiness of video game romance, and the difficulty in believing that the NPCs exist when she’s not interacting with them:

Usually, in Bioware games, their trust towards you is built upon them asking you to do them a big favor (rescuing a dangerous artifact, saving their hometown, blah blah)—this is not only a transactional approach to relationships, but also, a theatrical and unrealistic way to expect people to interact.

Overall, the piece gets at some of the same issues raised in Creatures Such as We.

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Kotaku ran an exchange of letters about representation of blackness in video games, by several black devs, journalists and critics. I especially appreciate Austin Walker’s point about non-black authors needing to make sure they’re researching their black characters and communities using materials that themselves present a variety of black experiences. And several of the contributors recommend specific books and TV shows about that might help with that.

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New Stories Retreat is a weekend-long retreat in May, in Olympia WA, for interactive story creators of various kinds — LARPers, tabletop RPG creators, and game designers — and organized by Avery McDaldno, creator of Monsterhearts and some of my other favorite tabletop storygames. This sounds pretty cool to me. (Canceled, alas — see comments.)

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ParserComp, a competition for parser-based games only, is running now through the end of March 14. You can find the games as well as criteria for judging at the ParserComp site.

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AdventureJam is a forthcoming 14-day game jam for adventure games. IF and text adventures are explicitly welcome, as are more graphical variants.

Going to GDC / Seattle. Want to get coffee?

GDC is nearly upon us! I will be speaking as part of the Design Microtalks session, but there are also a number of other IF-related highlights. (I’ve put a list of the IF/narrative talks that looked particularly intriguing after the fold.)

This trip means I’ll be in the Bay Area March 1-7 and then in Seattle March 7-14. My schedule is filling in, but there are still some slots here and there. Necessarily I put a priority on meeting with clients, friends, and students looking for mentorship, but every year I’ve met at least a couple awesome new people who were none of the above. So if you’re in the area and you’d like to get together and talk — about that totally unfair review I gave your game five years ago, about possible collaborations, about your dreams for the future of interactive narrative, about whatever common interest leads you to read what I write in the first place — please do ping me and I’ll see what I can do.

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