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Harmonia, by Liza Daly

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Harmonia, November 16, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
In college, I walked backward into nineteenth-century utopianism after obsessively rereading The Blithedale Romance. It's a lesser known Hawthorne novel. It's also one of my favorite books. The story is about a utopian community that destroys itself from the inside. Almost all academic literature concerning the novel touches on the fact that Hawthorne himself belonged to a real utopian community, Brook Farm. So I found myself digging into Brook Farm, and women's suffrage figures like Margaret Fuller, and utopian socialists like Charles Fourier.

Harmonia is an interactive novella that swims in the same waters. It's a story about a substitute teacher, Abby Fuller, who comes to fill in for a missing professor at an "obscure women's college, tucked in the upper corner of Massachusetts like a bookmark." That college is named Blithedale College. Brook Farm was likewise tucked into a corner of Massachusetts. I think I have a sense for where I am.

Before I get into the story, though, I need to talk about the game's aesthetics. They create a powerful first impression, and sustain that impression throughout. Harmonia was written in Windrift (also used for Stone Harbor), which is a custom engine designed by the author. Rather than clicking hyperlinks strictly to move between pages, hyperlinks in Harmonia either unspool more text on the same page, or spawn marginalia on the sides. These marginalia often contain additional hyperlinks the player must click to continue unspooling the main text.

A similar convention exists in Twine games. You click a link, move to a new page that has a marginal note, and then click another link to return. Harmonia streamlines that mechanic. Not only does it reduce the amount of clicking required, but by pairing the marginalia with its parent text, it keeps the reader focused. You don't need to reorient yourself after returning to the main page, because you never left. The game even traces lines for your eyes to follow back and forth to the notes.

When I saw how well this worked, my gut reaction was that it should become standard practice. After further reflection, I wasn't so sure. It's undoubtedly an elegant design, but it does make the marginalia feel like marginalia. That's appropriate for a story about academia. I don't know how well it would suit something like, say, their angelical understanding. Sometimes there's a reason to disrupt a player's focus. A changed page, reorientation, demands more attention, implies a shift in mental space. Nevertheless, same-page marginalia would be neat to see in more cybertext games.

Harmonia also pays great attention to typography and layout. I've heard many players bemoan, with reason, how unappealing parser games can look. Twine's default formats also attract valid criticism. Despite text being their main feature, many text games don't present their text in the best way. And that's no surprise. Web design is not easy, and tools like Twine and Inform aren't built to handle it for inexperienced programmers.

Font choice in Harmonia plays a role in the story. Different fonts indicate that different characters wrote the marginalia. This trick has also been used in books like House of Leaves and S. It works well as visual shorthand.

Apart from that, the game's design is essentially window dressing, but what exquisite window dressing! It demonstrates how a slick interface can propel a game into the spotlight. Without the interface, the story would still attract readers. But it wouldn't have shot as far, as fast, with less aesthetic appeal. More authors will need to invest in how their games look as the audience for interactive fiction continues to grow.

In short, Harmonia is as excellently designed as most text games come. It's a pleasure to navigate, and a lesson for other authors to study.

But what is it actually about?

The story puts its academic foot forward right away. Not only does it revolve around nineteenth-century utopianism and women's suffrage, but its characters are invested in professionally studying these topics at the university level. Abby Fuller, our protagonist, teaches a course titled Nineteenth Century Utopian Literature that she inherited from the missing Professor Lynn. We play through a few classes. We get to see selections from the reading list. Blithedale College itself is steeped in the subject. It was built on a site where Harmonia, an old utopian community, burned down.

That disaster still looms over the college. Relics physical and philosophical remain. A meteorite buried in the quadrangle, around which both Harmonia and Blithedale were founded, is slated for removal, which attracts controversy and student protests. And of course there is the question of what happened to the missing professor, who was researching the college's history when he vanished.

Naturally, Abby goes poking around. Naturally, she uncovers secrets. I'm going to discuss these, which means you should stop reading if you'd like to avoid spoilers.

(Spoiler - click to show)As it turns out, Harmonia was more than your run-of-the-mill utopian community. One member, Ignatius Cadwell, was also a dabbler in "galvanic experiments." By utilizing the meteorite on the property, he was able to construct a functional time machine. Except he didn't build it alone. Elsie Cadwell, his wife, served a major role in its construction, which both history and her husband overwrote.

She was also used as a guinea pig to test it.

In the future, this machine still exists, buried beneath the Blithedale College quadrangle. Professor Lynn discovered it. Abby Fuller discovers it too. And they both travel back to the original Harmonia when Elsie Cadwell, now masquerading as a research assistant in the present, activates her "Instrument" to send them into the past and trap them there.

Elsie Cadwell is the game's most compelling character, and most successfully embodies the themes the story wants to address. As a woman in the nineteenth century, her genius is appropriated, her humanity diminished, by the very community that would claim it seeks human utopia. Instead, she seeks her own utopia by traveling to a new century. What she finds is the same prejudice in another shape. Working at Blithedale is an improvement over working under her domineering husband, to be certain, but when she applies her engineering skills to help Professor Lynn repair the time machine, he considers thanking her with "a bouquet of flowers." No professional recognition, no payment, nothing more than a token reward.

This story is all too common. Women have their accomplishments stolen by men; or, if not outright stolen, then overlooked, sidelined. I'm reminded of authors like the Bronte sisters adopting masculine pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and Mary Anne Evans creating the pen name George Eliot. Even someone contemporary like J. K. Rowling publishes with gender-neutral initials. These are literary examples, but you could pull countless others from countless fields. David Auburn's play Proof, about a mathematician whose greatest work was actually done by his daughter, also comes to mind.

I mentioned "a bouquet of flowers," but that's just one straw in the pile that gets stacked on Elsie Cadwell's back. (And a pitifully small one, compared to something like Harmonia's breeding program.) Her back, understandably, breaks. She's the arsonist who burned the community in the past. Her righteous anger festers until it's hideous and unrighteous. As an antagonist, this makes her very interesting. Every step in the path that guided her toward violence has our sympathy, but that doesn't make the monster she's become any less monstrous. Guilt expands beyond the individual, into society.

At the story's conclusion, however, her character arc breaks down. I should specify: in one conclusion. At the end, Abby Fuller has the choice to return to the future or remain in the past. If she returns, she meets Elsie Cadwell again, and the game is forced to explain why Abby isn't furious during this confrontation. She indeed isn't, despite having been pushed against her will into a time machine, and being thrown back into a nineteenth-century commune that practices eugenics.

Instead, Elsie says that she did this to protect her daughter, Lilian, who's still living in the abusive Harmonia community: "I knew she could have people who would love her, if I sent them back." Apparently Professor Lynn was the best choice, since he's the one who remains behind in this ending. Abby herself only meets Lilian briefly before returning to the future. Nevertheless, Abby accepts this explanation, and Elsie appears to mean it sincerely. All animosity is not quite forgiven, but at least put aside.

I appreciate the story's desire to not paint Elsie Cadwell as wholly villainous. She's not a foe to be defeated, after all. She's a person in pain who needs to be understood. This resolution, though, strikes me as too good to be true, as though the plot's elbow has been twisted. What's more, Elsie's motivation for sending Lynn and Abby to the past is the story's lynchpin, and here it pops out.

The game's other ending has its own rough patches. If Abby decides to stay in the past while Lynn returns, she has no problem blending into nineteenth-century society. Although she emerges from the time machine's "enormous sinkhole" in "a cloud of soot and dust," everyone in Harmonia still "accepted [her] story: I was a widow schoolteacher from New York looking to start a new life." She also says it was "trivial for me to assume guardianship" over Lilian. Elsie Cadwell's own experiences in the past seem trivialized by the trivial effort it takes Abby to overcome them herself. I don't believe this was the game's intent. Rather, it feels as though the story, rushing to tie up loose ends, tied some into a knot.

This isn't the only point at which Abby Fuller's behavior seems strangely bent to fit the plot. She's presented as someone who loves paging through books, scribbling into margins. It's a personality quirk that works well with the game's hyperlink marginalia. However, it's taken to a cartoonish extreme when she follows loose diary pages that have been dropped as "deliberate breadcrumbs" to lead her into the time machine, which is vibrating so intensely that "my teeth ached and the wooden structure on which I stood swayed noticeably." The story may acknowledge its absurdity, and Abby may say "I don't regret walking into this trap, not for one moment," but that doesn't make it less absurd: both as a trap for her to walk into, and as a trap that Elsie Cadwell would've thought to set.

As someone investigating a mystery, Abby has to be a protagonist willing to snoop through desks, crawl into abandoned tunnels, break rules. She has no time for doubt because the story has no room for it. Rather than feeling like a character in her own right, she becomes a chess piece for the game to move wherever it needs her.

Because she's solving a mystery, it's also imperative that she knows less than other characters. She can't know about Blithedale College and Harmonia already: she has to uncover their history along with the player. This means she needs to come from outside the college for the story to work as it's written, but the game never convincingly explains why she was chosen as Lynn's substitute in the first place. The dean is openly hostile, and reminds her that she can be replaced on a whim. She arrives late to class, and her students are so much more knowledgable about the material that they teach the lessons themselves.

We're meant to sympathize with Abby, and to groan at the dean's elitism when she mentions Abby's "less-than-stellar qualifications." She graduated from "state and commuter schools, but [she] still worked [her] ass off." Now she's the underdog in a snobbish academic environment.

I was ready to sympathize. I kept waiting for Abby to put her critics in their place. Instead she moved through the story as a neutral entity. Her students remained smarter than she was. When she finally discovered the time machine, I found myself asking: Why her? She has no real investment in the college. She's barely just arrived. But she's already uprooting secrets that have been hidden for decades.

There's a quote from Truman Capote that applies here for me:

"The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right."

Harmonia isn't final in my mind as an orange is final. Immediately after finishing it, I began to pull it apart and put it back together in different configurations. What if Abby Fuller weren't the protagonist at all, and a student like Lillian Horace had been the detective who solved the mystery? Would the story feel more natural if the timeframe were longer, an entire semester, an entire year, with each chapter representing another month? What motivation would make more sense for Elsie Cadwell while preserving her moral ambiguity? Would it be better to remove her from the story's present, and keep her as a background figure? Could we remove the dean entirely? Or make the dean more invested in Professor Lynn's research? When we visit Harmonia, almost nothing happens before we return to the present; what would make that visit more memorable? Investigating the mystery is underwhelming before the revelation; how could the process be more engaging? More rummaging in books? More hyperlinks flooding from marginalia?

I don't have answers.

My final impression was that this is a story whose story is incidental to its themes. Its themes are important. Utopianism and dystopianism are popular topics nowadays, and it doesn't take much to see why. They're often explored in marvelously wonderful or marvelously horrible science-fiction settings. Harmonia returns to the soil, to the hard labor and practical requirements a society needs to consider. Visions about paradise in the future don't matter when people are being mistreated in the present. Women have it especially tough (a gross understatement), yet women still survive, fight back, and build wondrous things: in this story, a college. Education is one antidote to prejudice.

Harmonia itself wants to educate players. It's rigorously researched, filled with quotes. Its glossy presentation is a hook to draw more readers in and teach them something new. I wish its story had been given the same attention, but I'd still consider it a safe recommendation for anyone interested in digital fiction.

The Wizard Sniffer, by Buster Hudson

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
The Wizard Sniffer, November 16, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Buster Hudson isn't as popular as he should be. I think that will change after this year. He wrote Oppositely Opal in 2015, about a witch with valley girl mannerisms who finds herself trapped in a cabin with all her spells cursed to work in reverse. He wrote Foo Foo in 2016, about a fairy detective investigating crime in a Chinatown-style slum occupied by anthropomorphic animals trading illegal cheese. Until he released The Wizard Sniffer, his other 2016 game might've been my favorite. That was Her Majesty's Trolley Problem, where you man a harpoon cannon on a royal trolley traveling over a grass sea, transporting a captive skeleton admiral.

But I think Wizard Sniffer has dethroned Trolley Problem.

It's a game where you play a pig in service to a knight and his squire. The knight bought you recently because he thought you were a "wizard sniffer." Now he expects you to sniff out a shapeshifting wizard in a castle and help rescue a princess. Although you can't really locate magical artifacts or people by smelling them, smelling things is pretty much all you can do.

Your snout is like a pointer. You point toward objects, and your companions handle the interaction. Ser Leonhart, the knight, always attacks everything. His squire, Tuck, attempts more sensible actions: turning a doorknob rather than trying to kill it. At first they stick together, but as the game progresses, you can separate them. Many puzzles are constructed around bringing the right person to perform the right task at the right time.

As Hudson has demonstrated before, especially in Oppositely Opal, he knows how to design clever puzzles. Opal's puzzles might still be his best. Since it's a one-room game, the puzzles have a greater unity. Wizard Sniffer sprawls more, with new areas constantly unlocking, new puzzle sequences unlocking in old areas, and various puzzle styles thrown into the mix. Some are fetch quests; some are environmental. My favorite is probably a hide-and-seek game. But the sprawl means it's almost inevitable that players will get lost wandering the map at one point or another, wondering what to do next.

What do players do when they're lost? Turn to the hints. Most games fear this possibility and do everything they can to convince players not to look. Hudson embraces it. Your hint system in Wizard Sniffer is delivered by two fleas behind your ears. When you OINK, they drop clues, with a twist: one is true and one is false.

The hint system therefore becomes its own puzzle. Players don't feel like they had to give up by using it. Instead, they're rewarded with more jokes, more characters, more story.

Once again, Hudson has done this before. Opal had Killjoy the Hint Cat, and Foo Foo had another detective you could consult. But Wizard Sniffer's fleas rise to the next level. Their influence permeates the game, allows it to sprawl as much as it does.

Nowadays, when players will search for walkthroughs after a few minutes, rather than continuing to puzzle over a puzzle, I think it would be wise for more authors to adopt this approach to hints. The fact is they've become a standard part of how players experience games.

Hints aside, puzzles aside, I want to talk about the story. It's a comedy fantasy parser game, and although the interactive fiction world is rife with those, Wizard Sniffer stands above most. Perhaps by standing on their shoulders and wobbling a little. Imagining people in a stack feels appropriate for a slapstick game like this.

It's true that the game is mostly an extended joke. You're a pig scuttling through a shapeshifting wizard's castle, and though you can't locate the wizard with your nose, things have been shapeshifting. One castle resident has accidentally transformed into a clown with squeaky shoes, to give an example. Moreover, the wizard's family is preoccupied with creating puzzles, which provides an in-story excuse to have them everywhere.

So far, so good, but we're in standard territory. What's special about Hudson's games is how he takes these conventional tropes and probes them to find the heart. This isn't just a silly story about transformative magic: it's a story about how identities transform too, and how they sometimes don't, and sometimes should, and sometimes shouldn't.

Every character conforms to a rigid fantasy archetype. Knights are knights. Squires are squires. Princesses marry princes, and princes are happy to have them. Wizards are evil. Monsters are monsters. Except that they aren't, unless they are.

As the story develops and we move deeper into the castle, learn what's actually happening, these identities begin to crack. Squire Tuck isn't more than a squire. He truly is meek and servile. But he also is more, because he's a person. Ser Leonhart, meanwhile, refuses to expand beyond his role. He forcefully constrains himself to an archetype. It stops being a joke when you realize his identity is a prison he's locked himself inside.

Other characters are also locked inside their identities, and not always of their own volition. But there's magic in the air. Gender and social roles dissolve. People learn to accept who they are.

Other reviewers have compared this game to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'd compare it to A Midsummer Night's Dream instead. Although it's absurd, the enchantment is real, not just a parody. Not that it's Shakespeare, mind you. But it's not cynical. It doesn't mock. It wants to uplift the spirit.

I do have a few quibbles. Hudson favors long prose passages to deliver key scenes. Wizard Sniffer occasionally takes these past my limit. I'd prefer more fine-grained interaction. He also makes a few pop culture jokes that didn't land for me. I can't help but think how they'll date the text, make the timeless fantasy less timeless. Finally, there's one sequence where you can drink different magical potions, which is very exciting until you try them and realize their effects aren't as dramatic as you expected.

But these are indeed quibbles. If you like traditional text adventures, you should play The Wizard Sniffer.

Eczema Angel Orifice, by Porpentine

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Eczema Angel Orifice, September 28, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Eczema Angel Orifice has been out for a while now, but a new version was just released (I have it for Mac), so I thought it would be useful to finally add a review here on IFDB. This isn't a review for the individual games included, just a brief overview about the compilation as a whole.

Which is the first thing to mention. This is a compilation, and most (maybe all) of these games are available elsewhere. Some are easy to find, like Howling Dogs and With Those We Love Alive, but others require more digging. They're scattered across the web. Eczema Angel Orifice removes the need to dig. If you're a Porpentine fan, this compilation is even more convenient than her website to use as a library for her work.

Here's a list of all the games included:

(Spoiler - click to show)With Those We Love Alive
Ultra Business Tycoon III
Howling Dogs
High End Customizable Sauna Experience
Miniskirt World Network: Business Slut Online
Their Angelical Understanding
Orifice Clique
Neon Haze
Sewer Diamond War of 3096
Her Car is the Edge of the World
Climbing 208 Feet Up the Ruin Wall
Faceless Genderless Amorphous Bonemass Hairbeast
Beautiful Frog
Wild Wild Gender Mines
Frolic RPG
List of Hellgenders
The Sky in the Room
Miss Clemory and the Wall of Fire
One Move Boss

Eczema Angel Orifice is a single app. These games aren't separate files that you download in a zip folder and need to juggle around or anything. Like I said, it's convenient. When you open the app, the main menu is a list of all the games. You click one, and it loads right in the same window.

The menu itself is quite nice. Each title is presented on a banner with a background that matches the individual games (I especially like the one for Hairbeast). They're simple but evocative. It's interesting to just scroll through the list. In fact, the menu has its own score. That's not unusual for game menus, but here it feels as though the menu is designed as a place to explore, an environment in its own right. The design is by Neotenomie, who was also a collaborator for games like Neon Haze, and you can tell it was made with care.

You actually can spend quite a while exploring this menu too. Apart from the games themselves, it contains design notes for every game. Some notes are literally design notes. Others are reflections, ideas, moods. Long or short, they're all worth reading if you like Porpentine's work.

Another feature is a filter to sort the games by duration and tone. There are also notes about the content. The idea is that a player without a clear preference for what to play can use the filters to have the Orifice recommend a game. I'm not sure if this works or not, because it assumes you're unfamiliar with them and need help choosing one, and I was already familiar with most. Only someone coming to the work for the first time would be able to really comment. In any case, it's certainly not a bad feature to include. And if you want to double-check a game's content, you always can.

All the games have been polished. These are the best versions available. If you've already played the big ones, this is also a good chance to try some of Porpentine's lesser-known titles. I recommend Ballast, Her Car is the Edge of the World, and Contrition.

Yellow Dog Running, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Yellow Dog Running, May 23, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This game was made for a speed-writing contest. It’s rough. It has unimplemented scenery. Its conversation menus are formatted wonkily. In order to advance the story, at certain points you have to “follow tracks,” which initially creates a guess-the-verb problem. Worse than that, there are no “tracks” in the room descriptions. There are footprints, but “footprints” isn’t a synonym for “tracks.”

Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.

I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.

You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.

These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.

Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.

About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.

I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.

Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.

The Anachronist, by Peter Levine

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The Anachronist, May 21, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a story’s time period. When they can’t find solid ground to establish one, or when what they thought was solid proves unstable, they report confusion or annoyance. Their suspension of disbelief has snapped.

I have a hard time remembering dates. A very, very hard time. You have no idea what a hard time. When other people discuss generations, when they delineate time by decades, this seems alienating. There’s no great change from December’s last day to January’s first. Dividing the time on either side into different years makes sense for practical matters. Treating that distinction as more than an arbitrary line drawn on a calendar, discussing years as though they were truly distinct -- this is where I start to sink while everyone else floats. For whatever reason, the timekeeping systems that most people use to organize their lives feel meaningless to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many fairy tales.

I think this is why I’m more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, I’m more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. It’s fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this game’s subject matter was like having a favorite dessert served on a silver platter.

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire -- temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. But they aren’t only her memories. Her perception is sharp enough, her empathy keen enough, her imagination wild enough, perhaps, this close to death, that she can share her consciousness with other people. She can look, from the stake, across the city and know what’s happening in distant towers. She can remember stories that her cellmates told her, before she was convicted, and relive their lives through those remembered tales.

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. It’s very long for a Twine game. It took me a few days to finish, and probably around ten hours total. My reading speed, granted, is slow as a slug, but still. If you plan to play it, treat it more like a book than a game.

It also features long stretches of non-interactive text. Extremely long stretches. Stretches that tested my patience. I’m reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but I’ll read that if that’s what I want. Stone Harbor is another recent game that had similarly long, non-interactive passages. I finished that game feeling as though the brief interactive bits were window dressing, that the story would’ve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When it’s not interactive, it’s not interactive.

But when it is, it is.

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen. I was tempted to give it five stars for the concept alone. But although the concept is great, the game suffers from a few things apart from its long non-interactive patches.

It’s written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually don’t unfold through direct action. Instead they’re summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, you’d expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You aren’t always there yourself.

It’s also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. It’s Elizabethan, and it revels in intimate period detail. Tastes, sounds, textures. Clothing, accents, architecture, music, food, religion, law. Everything feels evocative and real, and also researched. You can sense the research in every line. Again, that textbook flavor emerges, where you feel more like you’re reading a scholarly article than a story. Even the artwork (there are many nice illustrations) is captioned with bibliographic information if you click it. Attributions are good, but presenting them on every single page really puts the story’s academic foot forward.

Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your “entropy” or “knowledge.” What these stats do doesn’t become clear until the end, when they determine the end. I tried to decrease entropy throughout the story, even if it meant sacrificing knowledge, which led to a sub-optimal ending. Whoops. Since the game is so long, it’s unlikely I’ll play again to do things differently.

You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that don’t belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your “entropy” decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didn’t work for me: a) because I didn’t know what the “entropy” stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didn’t work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldn’t click them. I only managed to find about four clickable anachronisms in the whole text. Which meant I spent a lot of time clicking on nothing when I could’ve been more immersed in reading.

These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is ambitious, sophisticated, and despite everything that I thought it did less than ideally, it still did enough right to keep me engaged to the end.

The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, by Ryan Veeder

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, May 18, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Along with The Baron, this was one of the first parser games I ever played when I discovered interactive fiction back in 2014. At the time, I thought it was great, but on The Baron’s heels it felt less substantial (what wouldn’t) and I gave it four stars. Now a few years have passed. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower remains a touchstone for me. It deserves five.

In many ways, this game helped shape my outlook on the parser medium. It’s not about puzzles. It’s not about “Aha!” moments that come from deducing the right command to type. It’s not about deep simulation or intricate world modeling. Instead, it’s about guiding the player through a sequence of events carefully designed, above all else, to produce a mood.

Your only goal is to ascend a tower with which the player-character is “mildly” obsessed. No real obstacles stand in your way. It’s twilight, and the tower is located on a campus whose population is thinning as night falls. You’re alone to contemplate the scenery.

As a traditional short story, this wouldn’t work. There isn’t much story to tell. As a space to explore, were the game to be stripped to its bare geography, it also wouldn’t offer much. There’s a parking lot, a lawn, some empty halls, etc. These locations aren’t compelling on their own, and as I mentioned, they’re not that deeply implemented. What makes the game is the experience itself that the player has while moving through the environment.

That word, “experience,” is awfully vague, but it’s what matters. A story as the word “story” is normally understood isn’t required, perhaps isn’t even advisable, because the player’s experience is the story.

It’s the writing that does the trick here. Well, it ought to be. This is a text game. When a reader has to interact with text, move through it, move it around, this changes both what text does and what it has to do.

Not just anybody could’ve written a game like this and made it good. It’s good because Ryan Veeder’s got his finger on your pulse as you’re playing. He knows where you’ll try to go, what you’ll try to do, what you’re thinking at each step. He’s attuned to the experience you should be having, which allows him to gently guide you along and drop little surprises at the right moments. Finding a plain old quarter on the ground, for example, which you don’t even need, feels special.

Wrenlaw is another Veeder game with a similar style. I have to admit, I don’t like it as much. It tips more into modern literary melancholy, where you’ve got mundane objects and scenes, and they’re significant because they’re ever-so-slightly sad. But not too sad. Just enough to feel wistful. This sorta thing, to my taste, is like playing with fire for a writer. It’s really hard to nail. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, however, pretty much does nail it. Gothic Tower feels more self-assured, and it’s certainly more slyly constructed. I don't think it's going to budge from my personal parser canon anytime soon.

Unicorn Story, by Conrad Cook

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A proper unicorn., February 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This is short hypertext fiction that takes less than ten minutes to play. It's not a game exactly. It was written with a system called Ramus that functions like the Jonah format in Twine. When you click a hyperlink, new text appears at the screen's bottom, but the old text remains visible above. Hyperlinks that haven't yet been clicked also remain active, which means that the player needs to go back and click links they've previously passed.

The result is a textual jumble. Links will appear that you can open in any order, and the text segments they spawn don't line up and organize themselves. Navigating these links in various orders will not lead to different outcomes either. You always reach the same conclusion. Rather, the intent is to create a jumble.

That's because the game takes place almost entirely in mental space. There are only a few lines of physical description, but otherwise everything is internal dialogue.

What has happened is this: a unicorn has put its head on a maiden's lap. According to legend, the best way to bait a unicorn is with a maiden, and this maiden is being used as bait. With its head on her lap, the unicorn can read her thoughts, and its thoughts become jumbled with hers during their mind-merger.

That's what the interactive hyperlink format accomplishes. It mirrors the mind-merger in the story. Although the story has a traditional beginning, middle, and end, presenting it as static fiction would not have conveyed the same concept.

Now, with the technical side covered, what about the story? It's very simple. A one-act play, if you will, with two main characters. But a lot is going on in this small space.

I'm a unicorn fan. Not the rainbows-and-sparkles unicorns. The haughty, wild unicorns that gore and trample people. Those are the ones I like. There is so much bound up in legends about them. Slice through the unicorn and you'll expose strata about gender, class, public and private power dynamics, sex, spirituality, and I could go on, etc. And all these things come to a head when a maiden encounters a unicorn during a hunt.

Both maiden and unicorn in Unicorn Story are archetypes, but both are also real characters with real conflicts. Both have their own voices. I'm particularly happy with the unicorn's characterization, because this story gets it right. You won't find any innocent forest creature here. Instead the unicorn is arrogant, vicious, manipulative (it can read the maiden's thoughts, but she doesn't know this). The maiden, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet. She has her own stakes in the hunt and grapples directly with her role as bait.

It's fascinating to see these two characters twist and turn to alternately accept, deny, and justify their motives for putting themselves into this situation. As I said, the story's very short, and yet in its small space there are revelations and double-crosses. But nothing is rushed. Nothing is heavy-handed. More is packed into each line of dialogue, and especially into its tone, than you might realize at first.

Just like the legends it's based on, you could mine Unicorn Story for a long time and keep finding new things to say about it.

A Good Wick, by Little Foolery

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A Good Wick, January 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
A Good Wick is essentially an interactive storybook. It’s totally linear, with only one point at which the reader can pick between two choices, each choice leading to a different ending. There’s also a secret third ending, but it doesn’t involve further choices: clicking a hidden link continues the story from where a previous ending had stopped.

Some linear games employ cycling links, variables, passage loops, etc., etc., to make the text active and malleable even when the story is straightforward. These games may have limited narrative outcomes, you may have no choices to make, but you still have to move the text around and slide bits into place to reach the end. Games like this are sometimes referred to as dynamic fiction. Well, A Good Wick doesn’t do any of that either.

Nevertheless, I regard A Good Wick as strong interactive work. It’s only using the most basic hypertext mechanic — the link from one page to the next — but it’s highly attuned to how this influences pacing. It withholds and delivers text as an oral storyteller would to guide the plot’s rhythm. New sections are often preceded by titles such as “A Fact About Daylight” or “A Fact About the Town,” but these things aren’t really sections and those aren’t really titles. They’re more like poetic flourishes. They also guide the story’s rhythm. Chapters in a book influence rhythm too, but you know when they’re coming and they have an organizational purpose. A Good Wick’s section breaks are more like intertitles dramatically introduced during a film.

Many pages are illustrated, and these illustrations are also arranged with a consideration toward pacing. I used the phrase “interactive storybook” before, but “interactive comic” might be more apt. A comic uses the sequencing between panels to deliver meaning. A Good Wick does the same thing, with every new page serving as a panel. Not all the pages are given this treatment, and some illustrations repeat, but it’s a technique that finds good employment at some key moments.

The illustrations themselves are well suited to the story. Atmospheric, dark but warm, earthy and hazy. They’re always situated at the page’s center, and they fade outward into the surrounding black background. They flicker and glow. No, this wouldn’t work nearly as well as a printed storybook. It wouldn’t work at all. The game advises you to play it at fullscreen in a dark room, which I did, and would also recommend.

Certain readers, on the other hand, will find this annoying. At some points, the text fades until your cursor hovers back over it. At other points, the text is too bright to read until it dims beneath your cursor. People who just want plain text won’t enjoy these effects. But the effects complement the story’s themes, and you can’t please everyone.

What about the story, anyway? We’re in fairy tale territory. Outside a village in a sunless land, a sentient lantern has been burning for three years beside the road, keeping watch. Something’s prowling out there in the dark. One day it’s going to try entering the village. We know, from the very beginning, that the village is doomed, and this story is about learning why.

The writing is clean and charming. The plot is well structured. It’s sinister, but not too sinister, but actually quite sinister the more you think about it — like a good fairy tale.

Unfortunately I think it trips over itself with its multiple endings. Of the two standard endings, one is much more fleshed-out than the other. The third, secret ending takes elements from the first ending and adds them to the second, creating an awkward mishmash. This third ending feels like it’s meant to be the “true” ending, but by the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already seen its plot beats beaten into the ground. It over-explains things that were already clear; the over-explanation makes everything feel more like a trope; it rehashes sequences that were better the first time around.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the game would falter in this area. It puts narrative branching far, far into the background for almost the entire story, and that’s when its strengths shine. But then branching takes center stage at the end and doesn’t work as well. It’s clear that the team behind this project is extremely talented. They just haven’t hammered down what makes a branching narrative effective.

When I reach a satisfying ending, I often don’t want to replay a story. Many games encourage the player to explore alternate paths, however, and therefore I find myself replaying to experience the game as intended. That’s what happened here.

In these situations, the player doesn’t choose an ending; the player chooses all endings, and the game becomes a collectathon. The pacing is ruined. Any important decisions you might’ve made in the story are nullified when you just go back and pick every option anyway.

Maybe other readers won’t find A Good Wick’s multiple endings as disappointing, since I’m hard to please when it comes to this mechanic. Even with that criticism, though, I enjoyed the story a lot. It’s labeled as “horror” here on IFDB, which doesn’t seem right, but if you like dark fantasy and fairy tales, and don’t mind linear hypertext, then it’s definitely worth giving a try.

Howled House, by B Minus Seven

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Howled House, December 1, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Howled House is a short piece made in Raconteur where you play as the titular house. Three imprisoned “howlers” howl during the night as they sleep, and a house with three wings is “raised” by their howling. Each wing has its own personality, and when an explorer enters, the wings attempt in their own ways to either repulse his advances or seduce him toward his doom. What does this explorer want? To scour the house, to take something from it, to understand what can’t be understood about its secret rooms (some open with links; others never open)? The house itself doesn’t quite know. The explorer is not repulsed, is not seduced, but is nevertheless trapped because, once he’s entered the house, he can’t leave.

Howled House itself is also the house it describes, and the player is the explorer. Its words invite you inside and yet they push you back. What do you hope to achieve by playing? What right do you even have to poke around inside this house whose very walls have risen from anguished howls? It’s a question that extends to any art, but especially to art that’s born from pain. That description makes it sound deadly serious, which isn’t right. It’s lively and alive — but it is potentially deadly. “The blade-box, what fun!” says the clowning third hall.

As I write these words, I feel I must tread with caution. At this very moment, I’m walking into the house’s trap, and it wants me or it doesn’t want me or it wants both things. Maybe I’m a guest or maybe I’m a plaything. Maybe I have no business being here. No, I think I’m welcome. After all, the game’s been written for people to experience. But it’s difficult to know where I stand, just as it’s difficult for the house and the author to know what readers want, what their agendas are. And not just this house, not just this author, not just this reader: it’s difficult for anyone to feel their way forward through communication with another person.

Of course this reading might be wrong. Maybe I’m lost in the house. Maybe I took something from it that it never had or never wanted me to have. That’s a danger. All I can do is acknowledge the danger. It’s a dangerous game, but also a game I consider worth risking the danger to play. I wouldn't be surprised if, a few months from now, I understand it in a different way.

The language is phenomenal. I may be unsure about a few things here, but there’s no question in my mind that Howled House ought to be nominated at the XYZZY Awards for Best Writing.

Take, by Katherine Morayati (as Amelia Pinnolla)

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Take, November 19, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Take is a difficult game to discuss. It attacks the very concept of writing impressions/reviews/any-personal-reactions-whatsoever, and therefore demands a more considered response from anyone who dares to have a response. It’s a challenge. It defies you to “take” it. If you don’t, then you’re a coward turning a blind eye to institutionalized abuse. If you do, then you’re a barbarian participating in that abuse. The only way to touch the material is by walking the same razor’s edge that the game itself walks.

Essentially you are a journalist plugged into the current mass-media machine, right now, today. This is conveyed by an allegory about gladiatorial combat in a dystopian society, but what you’re actually doing is writing “hot takes” for a soulless editor who wants you to flay open your personal life and put it on public display. Your value as a writer depends on how many “hits” you can generate/withstand, but this value carries over to your value as a person, because it determines whether you can make enough to continue supporting yourself. Nobody cares about you as a person, however. Not even your supposed fans. You’re simply cutting yourself open so that they can consume your “content” as they would consume “content” from anyone else willing to undergo similar exposure. The content in your “content” doesn’t matter, as long as it's intimate. It just has to be salacious enough to slip down the throat easily. And if it doesn’t slip down the right way, they’ll still pick you apart, and you’ll see every petty and mean-spirited criticism on Twitter. In short, you cannot win, and indeed the game ends when you’re “taken” yourself, not by yourself, but by an unfeeling audience who finally make you their own and discard you for good in the same moment.

As I said, this is all presented via allegory. Your mental reactions to the gladiator fight are translated into “takes” that feed into a monitor built into your chest, and this monitor also alerts you to all the incoming negative tweets that people write in response. Escape is impossible. Society has welded this contraption into your body. The gameplay itself plays a role in the setup, where examining and taking things are the only actions that you are even equipped to do. Nothing else matters because the game says nothing else matters because it’s making a comment about our current culture where nothing else matters.

As a game, this is extremely effective. You couldn’t ask for mechanics to be built into a story more.

As an allegory, like last year’s In The Friend Zone, it chains itself in a major way to popular slang that will sooner than later fade out, but under the slang are issues that will persist, most probably, as long as humankind survives.

There’s also a gendered aspect to the narrative. You aren’t simply a journalist; you are a female journalist, and the game is as much about society’s attitude toward women as it is about society’s obsession with consuming endless “content.” These hot takes that you’re writing are a journalistic form that has grown and mutated from the literary memoir, which is a genre historically fostered by women. Now it has been repurposed to make them victims for even attempting honest self-reflection. By sharing their viewpoints, they are simply making it easier for the leering audience to gawk at them, and the monitor being inset into your exposed chest, which your scanty armor doesn’t cover, isn’t a trivial design element. Great attention is paid to how prettily disfigured you can become during the battle, and to how actual disfigurement, real wounds, must be camouflaged to look aesthetically pleasing; the audience doesn’t want to confront legitimate suffering because that would spoil their entertainment. A few lines seem to echo passages from howling dogs, where the bone-footed empress must practice her death pose to ensure its elegance, but whereas howling dogs offered relief, even if that meant plunging deeper into a delusion or a dream, there’s no relief anywhere here.

The protagonist’s experience is contrasted by an epilogue that unlocks after the main game is finished, where you play as her opponent and see how the combat unfolded from his perspective. He is radically, grotesquely, stereotypically a “he,” and the game’s own hottest take arrives via this epilogue, which is titled Use and limits its verbset to that command. Whereas the characters, actions, and environments were described with penetrating detail during Take, in Use everything is reduced to brainless mush. “Pretty sweet battlefield.” That’s as deep as the commentary’s going to get. There are no more levels, there is no more thought, and everything exists, of course, to be “used,” including “the girl they sent.” Moreover, “using” anything will produce an automatic one-move victory. This epilogue is where its venom climactically overtops the game’s cup and absolutely everything on the table becomes infected.

There’s no solution offered here, and these characters aren’t people. They are monstrous parodies pitted against each other in a death battle they’ve both created: an eternal victim and an eternal persecutor. Nothing will ever change. It will only evolve, as the “hits” in the game’s dystopia did from virtual to physical, to become more complicated and more hideous. Subtleties don’t tease out meaning. They provide more openings for attack. We may sympathize more with the victim but our sympathy is as worthless as the takes that she’s writing because it will have no influence on anything. We might try to say, “I understand,” but she’s still going out onto the arena floor to suffer.

I don’t think that art needs to offer solutions. Sometimes pointing a finger at a problem is already hard enough. I certainly won’t propose to offer a solution in this review to the problems the game is highlighting, but what I can do is give my own opinion about a few issues, and the foremost thing that I want to say is that sharing your opinion is not “giving a hot take.” Writing an essay is not “writing a thinkpiece.” Playing a game, reading a book, watching a movie — these activities are not reducible to “consuming content.” And yet people do reduce them, every day. They reduce them by how they approach subjects, how they use words to frame discussions. When communication is drowning in #ironic #hashtags #about #hottakes, that begins to color how people actually interpret reality. When people self-consciously discuss their #brands, they are heating the fire for their own branding irons. Even the last two sentences that I wrote are contributing to this problem.

I’ve seen other authors, during perfectly innocent conversations, refer to themselves as content-creators, and to their games as content. The thing about content is that it matters less than the receptacle it’s filling. Even in the niche interactive fiction world, people have adopted this terminology and its accompanying mindset from the mass-media treadmill that’s responsible for crushing people as Take’s protagonist is crushed. It won’t stop crushing anyone until people stop turning it. Stop slathering everything in corrosive irony. Stop swallowing authors whole and then banging the table to demand more. If you turn life into a blood-drunk meme, “one joke until expiration,” then that’s what it will become.

I don’t agree with everything this game depicts, and I wonder how effective it will be at getting players to think about certain topics, but it’s certainly straining to do as much as it possibly can with the tools and the room that it has. It’s impeccably written and designed. Even newcomers to parser should be able to play it. Recommended, but beware the spikes.

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