Beneath Floes (Bravemule, Pinnguaq)


Beneath Floes is a folk tale of Inuit culture, created in collaboration with Inuit contributors. (There’s a browser-based play option as well, but at the time of writing, that version wasn’t serving audio well, so you may prefer the download.) Recently a Kickstarter raised the funds to have Beneath Floes translated into Inuktitut (an indigenous language of the eastern Arctic) and Anishinaabemowin.

It is both a story and a meditation on story-telling, one which starts by explaining to the reader how much is going to be under the reader’s control. Not a lot, as it turns out: you mostly get to change small details, details that explicitly don’t branch the plot, while the horrible core story is beyond the player’s capacity to change. But the effect is very different from, say, the also very linear interaction in My Father’s Long, Long Legs, or the fact-mingled-with-fiction of Coming Out Simulator 2014.

Nonetheless the small details that you’re allowed to affect are not selected arbitrarily. Does evil, in your mind, have a hooked nose or a button nose? Do you associate yourself with an indigenous hero or with Superman? Perhaps we’re allowed to make these choices because we inevitably see reflections of ourselves in the stories we’re told, no matter who the teller is. Elsewhere — a dark sort of joke — you can pick which of two strings of gibberish numbers and letters the qallunaat, the white people, have assigned you as your identifying marker; or, in another place, you can change (by one year) the date associated with an anthropological recording. History is slippery, but the fundamentals hold.

I appreciated, too, the passages where material that relies on cultural context is presented just clearly enough for someone not native to the Arctic to understand, but yet not overly explained. A favorite passage:

It’s said that your father shot a caribou and failed to kill it, but that’s one person’s belief—not a well-liked individual, either.

From context, it’s clearly a scandalous thing to fail to kill a caribou. A whole ethos is implied but not explained.

Beneath Floes is not completely linear, however. There are at least two endings that I found, and as far as I can tell, what makes the difference is what you decide about the protagonist’s willingness to do violence.

Below (Chris Gardiner)

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Below is a StoryNexus world by Chris Gardiner. Chris is part of the Failbetter team, but Below is released (as I understand it) as his own personal project. He describes it thus:

…it’s a story-driven, dungeon-delving online card game you play in your browser. You play Below cards to explore the dungeon and Above cards to renew your spirit. But the more you draw on the Above deck, the more dire the plight that drove you into the dungeon.

Its inspirations are Beowulf, Moria, the Tombs of Atuan, and a whole pile of folklore. You can learn the Giant-Tongue, speak at the Althing, bargain with the White-Handed Lady who is sometimes called death, forge a Lion-Helm, hunt outlaws in a haunted barrow, outwit a Troll-Wife, and leave legacies for those who follow you (like a Streak of White Hair, Words of Caution, or Family Secrets).

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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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ParserComp: Chlorophyll (and a digression about female characters)


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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ParserComp: Endless Sands

ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.

Discussion here on Endless Sands, a shortish, lightly comic timed puzzle game with multiple solutions.

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Choose Your Erotica

Parser-based AIF — “adult interactive fiction” — has been around for a long time, though it has generally had its own forums and meeting places; every once in a while someone would turn up on with a coding question about layered clothing, or submit an adult game to a competition, but for the most part AIF didn’t overlap much with the main IF community. I did play a few pieces, but they were usually aimed unambiguously at heterosexual men. A common structure was to have a series of puzzles that would “unlock” sex scenes with assorted partners. (Here’s a review I did back in 2006 of Ron Weasley and the Quest for Hermione, for instance.) Sometimes these were cut-scenes, but sometimes you could use parser commands to do a play-by-play of which parts went where.

As choice-based IF has become more prevalent, so has choice-based, female-POV erotica. Here I take a look at several. I’m not going to be quoting long passages or posting images, but this may still not qualify as SFW depending on where you are.

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