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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Sunset (Tale of Tales)

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Sunset is the story of Angela Burnes, an African-American woman who has become the housekeeper of Ortega, a wealthy man in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria. The time is 1972, in the middle of that country’s civil war. Every week Angela spends an hour before sunset tidying her employer’s house in the rose-orange half-light.

During that time the player can go through Ortega’s possessions, getting to know the man better, checking chores off the day’s list. Eventually, Ortega starts leaving notes around the house, which the player can answer. Many chore actions and note-answers offer two variants, a flirtatious one and a cold one, but Ortega also responds to any sign of human presence. Leave his lights on, leave his water running, and his love for you will grow.

The apartment changes from visit to visit. Sometimes there’s a mess, left over from Ortega’s activities. Sometimes there’s new mail or rearranged books. Ortega changes from week to week which doors of his apartment are locked, which means that the whole floor plan of the apartment is rarely available to us at once; the apartment retains some more private areas that we only get to visit once or twice.

The ability to section off parts of the floor plan helps direct the player each day, though it was (I found) an only middling solution: on several days Angela was assigned chores so vaguely described that I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go in order to perform them. Somewhere in the apartment, from some angle, there would be a hot spot that would complete the chore in question, and I’d wander around all the rooms over and over, curious, then confused, then bored.

I began to enjoy Sunset more when I decided to let myself skip chores that proved too hard to find.

Fortunately, Ortega’s a forgiving boss, so even if Angela leaves some tasks undone, he never fires her and the story never comes to a mid-game halt. And the system seems designed in part to push the player towards romance, towards the flourishing of a sense of intimacy with someone never seen or encountered.

Sometimes the interactive flirtation worked for me, though more when it took the form of physical gestures rather than words: I was happy enough to leave Ortega’s possessions attractively laid out, but some of Angela’s flirtatious messages to Ortega are more overtly sexy than I found… plausible? comfortable? …given that they’ve never even been in the same room together. This may partly be a reflection of the writing generally: Angela’s inner monologues were often a bit on the nose for me, too, though not so much so as to ruin the experience. Conversely, I was amused the time I took the black queen off the chess board, and returned to find that he’d removed the black king as well.

Eventually, as things break down in the city outside, the apartment becomes more and more cluttered with objects that Ortega has rescued: crates and boxes, maps, museum plans. Hallways that used to be useful become blocked with junk, forcing me to go the long way around. Angela’s inner voice was frustrated, though not as frustrated as my own.

The thing I like best about this gameplay is the way it allows for improvising small expressive moments. The way I’m drawn to the window by the sound of jet fighters outside, and watch the contrails nervously even though I know it’s just a parade demonstration. The way I turn on a record and sit in a chair to listen to it after my chores are done, reaching for some quiet. The way, on other days, that I rush through my chores and leave again as soon as possible, currently annoyed with Ortega and not willing to linger in his space. The pleasure I take in the sight of my shadow cast across the carpet. The nervousness when I look out the window and see the city burning right before the protagonist was supposed to head home — surely it would be safer for her to sleep overnight in Ortega’s apartment than to go out alone in that chaos? The shock of hearing a bomb go off and seeing its flash in the lighting change around me.

Late in the game I found myself updating the calendar to the current date, even though that seemed pointless and futile, just as a touchstone for the earlier times when I had been meticulous about that ritual.

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Cinders (Moacube)

only it was really too inconvenient, you see,
not least when it shattered on the staircase
I was running up to catch the last train…
Apologies for Breaking the Glass Slipper, Isabel Yap

When I’m drawn to adapt a traditional story to interactive fiction, it’s often because there’s something about the original that bothers me so deeply that I feel I need to address it. Part of the reason I rework fairy tales is that I have such a love-hate relationship with them: I was raised on them, read them avidly as a child, but consider them to have been terrible guidance in many many ways. Especially, especially, the Cinderella-style model of passive virtue for women that said, Don’t complain if people aren’t giving you your fair share. If people ask too much of you, comply anyway. Put yourself last in all circumstances. Endure anything that comes your way. Never speak up for yourself. In the end, your patience may be acknowledged and rewarded by someone else, but not, of course, at your own instigation.

This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated. Other people cannot be expected always to guess accurately what’s a reasonable thing to ask of you and what’s an unfair imposition. When they ask something that’s an imposition, a lot of the time they’re relying on you to say no if no is the appropriate answer. If you don’t ever push back, you cast other people as the villains in your story without their necessarily ever intending to have that role. If you never say no, you allow your time to be spent frivolously on things that might not even matter all that much to the asker, instead of on things that might make a big difference elsewhere.

I’m still fighting to reprogram myself. I think maybe other women sometimes are too. Cinderella, I notice, gets retold a lot from the perspective of women who are trying to make the lead character a little less passive, a little less obedient. Rosamund Hodge’s novella Gilded Ashes explains Cinderella’s cooperation through a novel twist: the ghost of Cinderella’s mother still haunts the area, and reacts with such terrible vengeance towards anyone it perceives making Cinderella unhappy that the girl has to feign a good mood all the time, or face being responsible for the violence that will result.

Then there’s Cinders.

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.21.50 PM

Cinders is a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella that takes a shot at this same issue. It’s been out for a few years, but recently a friend gave me a Steam key for it, so I only played a month or so ago. It has a lot to commend it: the art is very attractive while not belonging to the usual anime categories; the story offers a high number of branches and subbranches; and the whole thrust of both story and mechanics is to interrogate the “be quiet, put up with being bossed around, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a man” message of the original fairy tale.

This Cinderella has the opportunity to be passively obedient (“good”), assertively selfish (“bad”), or “smart” (here’s a spoilery breakdown of how stats are distributed over the course of the game). Being smart is usually a third-way path that acknowledges nuance and complexity in interpersonal matters while rejecting fantasies and delusions about magic. The conventionally “best” outcome, where Cinders marries the prince and then presides over a happy kingdom, requires a balanced behavioral profile. And whatever happens, the Cinders in this story doesn’t get any outcome without working for it.

I think there’s still further to dig into the Cinderella problem — the difficult thing in my experience is not so much about whether one should sometimes stand up for oneself, but about when, and how, and how to balance other people’s needs with yours when you’re out of practice making that calculation, and how to deal with the emotional fallout of standing up for yourself when you’re still counting your own “virtue” in terms of the number of other people’s tasks you did today.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the spin Cinders put on this old problem, and the fact that some of the happy endings didn’t wind up joining me with the prince at all, but let me have other lovers, or solitude, or even something approximating a career.

Interactive Fiction Fund Titles

The Interactive Fiction Fund is a patron-supported initiative run by Javy Gwaltney to commission new works of interactive fiction each month. Because of the amount of funding and the timeframe, these tend to be short, choice-based pieces. Patrons get access to each new piece as it is finished, and the author then has the option of arranging to sell it on otherwise. If you too would like access to these when they’re published, though, you can sign up to the Patreon.

So far, there have been five IFF works, one for each month from January to May of 2015.

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Lifeline (3 Minute Games)

lifeline-ios-02Lifeline is an iOS and Android mobile game in which you are fielding a distress call from someone named Taylor (gender never actually specified — I’ve seen some reviews refer to Taylor as male, but I pictured a woman). Taylor was the youngest, most naive crew member aboard a space ship that has crashed on a distant moon. They have no previous space experience and only the most rudimentary safety training. For some reason you are the only person in communication range, so they need you to prompt them through a series of survival decisions.

The story plays out in roughly SMS-sized messages from Taylor, which sometimes come in rapid succession and sometimes only after a substantial real-time delay. These exchanges are backed by atmospheric music, and though the actual content is quite bare-bones and without visuals, the presentation is glossy and solid.

Lifeline has also garnered reviews calling it the best game available for the Apple Watch — one of those statements that might feel like faint praise while still being quite important from a marketing perspective. As far as I can tell from here, Lifeline is another example of the success of commercial IF on mobile. (This Offworld article talks a bit about how the piece was actually prototyped in Twine.)

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Mystical Creatures: Hunting Unicorn (Chandler Groover); Iron Rabbit Encounter (Caeth)

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HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.

Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.

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