Tonight Dies the Moon (Tom McHenry)

tonightdiesTom McHenry is familiar to people who follow Twine as the author of the grotesquely fascinating Horse Master. Tonight Dies the Moon is his Twine contribution to Antholojam, and is a diptych of stories about an ongoing Earth-vs-Moon conflict. It is less narcotically surreal than Horse Master, but it shows many of the same influences and artistic impulses. There is pixelated art, there is resource management more for the sake of the experience of managing resources than because the player can ever hope to gain anything thereby, there are small evocative hints of a large horrible dystopia.

At the beginning of the story, you’re allowed to choose which you come from, and have an entirely different experience depending on your selection.

If you choose the Moon, you live out your life as a space farmer in a roughly communist pod, obsessing over which of about a half dozen crops you should plant each year on your personal allotment. If you save up enough, you can buy a ticket back to Earth, but I’m not sure it’s possible to succeed. I managed to scrape together enough cash to buy a little extra land, but there are arbitrary crop failures and problems, and you periodically need to revamp your farm equipment or your yields drop, and you only have so many seasons available to you. At no point during your Moon life do you attack the Earth.

If you choose the Earth, you’re a young person living out a job both depressing and soul-numbingly boring, in which you control a combat drone attacking moon bases. You spend more of your time filling in spreadsheets than you do piloting your craft. Piloting the craft is slow and cumbersome but really easy anyway. It is the opposite of a first-person shooter, a videogame representation of combat that makes it boring and unheroic. Where Unmanned takes on the moral dimensions of drone warfare, Tonight Dies the Moon comes more or less from the starting point that it’s pretty horrible even without considering the experience of those being bombed. Though, of course, one should take that into account.

Both stories are less lonely than Horse Master. The Moon protagonist has fellows in ger living environment; the Earth protagonist has roommates and parents. This gives McHenry a little more scope for individual characterization, and he uses it well. The awkward conversation with the Earth protagonist’s parents is highly plausible, touched by love and anxiety and resentment in both directions. It can go well or badly, depending, though it may not be immediately obvious why, and this too feels accurate to family relationships, especially in transitional young adulthood.

Slightly more spoilery discussion after the jump, but for my tastes, this is one of the best Twine pieces I’ve played this year.

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July Link Assortment

If you want to talk to and hang out with other interactive fiction enthusiasts, here are a bunch of forthcoming live IF meetups:

SF Bay: August 1, 1 PM. (Details here.)

Boston: Friday, August 14, 6:30 pm. (Details here.) I’m not sure August’s meeting has been scheduled yet, but there will probably be one; check out this space if you’re curious.

Seattle: August 15, 1 PM. (Details here.)

London: August 25, 7 PM. (Details and RSVP here.)
We’re a diverse group including people interested in choice-based and parser IF, hypertext and Twine, StoryNexus, writing in video games, transmedia and interactive performance. You do not have to be experienced in any particular area to fit in; if you’re curious, please do join us and tell us about what you’re into. We meet in a lovely room above Failbetter Games HQ with a view of the Thames, talk and have snacks, and then after a couple of hours adjourn to the nearby pub. Everything is in easy walking distance of the North Greenwich tube stop.

Baltimore: August 29, 3 PM. (Details here.)

New York: I couldn’t find a listing for this month, and it looks as though the group may be on summer hiatus.

If you know of others I should be listing, please feel free to comment below.

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scrollthiefScroll Thief is out!

I haven’t had a chance to play the full version yet, but I really enjoyed the demo submitted to IntroComp (review here). It’s a classic old-school parser puzzle game set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, with humor and fun systemic results; while I’m not always keen on pieces that are just doing nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, the Scroll Thief demo was pretty inventive with its spellwork concepts and was actually taking the premise in some new directions. Cast spells! Cast spells on spells!

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Sub-Q, the new IF magazine/website, has announced its lineup of four new IF pieces upcoming in August. One of these is a reprint of Silver and Gold, a formally daring piece I reviewed here; the others are new work, including new material by Porpentine with Brenda Neotenomie and Yoon Ha Lee with Peter Berman (the team that produced the surreal and gorgeous To Spring Open). I am not familiar with any IF by Vajra Chandrasekera, but his publication history makes me eager to see the results.

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The Prix Net Art has a call for nominations open through August 17: it calls for works that are primarily experienced through a web browser and are more than incidentally acting on or acted on by the network; they explicitly call out twitter bots as an example of this kind of work, and I would guess that some types of interactive fiction might also be considered eligible. There is a $10,000 grand prize, as well as an additional $5000 for the runner up. Artists may nominate themselves, or may be nominated by third parties; the artist is not required to create a new work as part of the submission but will be judged on the basis of their existing portfolio. Additional details are provided here.

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I’ll be speaking on a panel with Naomi Alderman and Cara Ellison about stories in games at the London Literature Festival on October 7. If you’d like to join us, tickets are available here.

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I am also going to be at WordPlay this year (Toronto, Nov 7). WordPlay always shows a selection of text-rich games to the general public. If you want to submit something for consideration to be shown at WordPlay, there’s more information here, including discussion from IF community people who are planning to be there. I know in past years some people have worked together to pool transport and lodging, so that’s a place to look for those resources if you need them, too.

I’m also attending PRACTICE the next weekend in New York, with a stop in Boston in between. My schedule is filling in, but I’m planning to work in a way to get together with the Boston and New York IF groups; if there’s something else you want to meet about, please do get in touch and I’ll see if I can work in some time. (I’ve started listing upcoming appearances on my Contact page, in case that helps.)

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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.

The Secret Language of Desire (Megan Heyward)

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The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.

It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.

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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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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

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