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The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky, by Anonymous
CMG's Rating:

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.

Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth, by Gabriel Floriano
CMG's Rating:

Tuuli, by Daurmith and Ruber Eaglenest
CMG's Rating:

The Wand, by Arthur DiBianca
CMG's Rating:

Will Not Let Me Go, by Stephen Granade
CMG's Rating:

Charlie The Robot, by Fernando Contreras
CMG's Rating:

The Wizard Sniffer, by Buster Hudson

7 of 7 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.

Bloody Raoul, by Ian Cowsbell
CMG's Rating:

Hill of Souls, by Angela Shah
CMG's Rating:


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