I’ve always wanted to explore the world of Interactive Fiction. It’s a thriving community of writers and game designers who build text-driven games with the loose idea that their games must rely on writing alone without the use of graphics or complex systems. IF comes in all spectrums, however, and even in my short and shallow dive into its community I’ve encountered a variety of storytelling styles.
The world of Interactive Fiction does suffer the same sort of tribalism you find in many hobbies; “your story doesn’t count as IF because you used such-and-such software to design it,” or, “your story isn’t IF because the player has to use a mouse.”
Encountering that sort of talk at the surface of Interactive Fiction made it seem like a gated community and I worried that I would choose “wrongly”. I didn’t know where to start.
The Terror Aboard the Speedwell, a piece of IF loosely inspired by the movie Alien, recently came into my view and I was curious after hearing some high praise for it. One night with the house to myself I bought and played the game.
It was a fantastic experience and The Terror Aboard the Speedwell had me riveted and nervous from start to finish. Though I probably didn’t help myself by playing what turned out to be the perfect soundtrack in the background. The game captures the tone of Alien very well with characters you don’t quite learn to trust since they’re likely going to be horribly killed by an unknown, seemingly unstoppable enemy stalking you from every shadow. Sure, the game has some flaws like not quite giving you a great range of choices all the time. Occasionally the menu of responses for my character in particular situations felt tonally off from previous available choices and I sometimes felt forced down specific paths– why again should we split up to explore the ship when we know that a very scary creature is hunting and killing us one by one?
But the game was the right kind of inspiration to try more IF and wouldn’t you know it, the Interactive Fiction Competition for 2014 had just opened for judging. It was a perfect opportunity to experience the best (hopefully) that the world of Interactive Fiction had to offer. I held no illusions, with my busy schedule I knew I’d be lucky to play even a few entries in time for the competition’s end, but I had to try; one of the main rules of judging these stories was that you had to play at least five of the 50+ entries by November 15.
**Caution, there are spoilers here. If you too are a judge, bail out now!**
The competition’s entry page has a handy “randomize” function so alphabetically leading entries don’t get an advantage, and I was happy to get started:
– The Entropy Cage: The world is entirely run on semi-sentient computer programs and you play as a therapist and sometimes judge for those somewhat conscious systems, helping them understand their problems and rendering appropriate punishments if they’ve done something wrong. Suspended from your job for a reason not entirely made clear you wake up to a call from work to find that something (of course) has gone wrong with the global network.
My character then logged into the troubled system’s interface. From there I had to select commands and interact with these semi-sentient computer programs to try and discover what was going on with the network. The problem was that there was no instruction of what any of the commands meant or did, which didn’t feel genuine since my character would surely know the basic functions of his/her job. By the time I fully understood the game’s systems it was too late and I had reached a “bad” ending in the branching story. I was tempted to try the game again for a different ending since the sliver of dystopian fiction I got had me a little curious, but I ultimately decided to move on. It too much faux techno-babble anyway.
– Following Me: You and your sister take a break from college partying to go on a short hike through the snowy woods of a remote park. Smartly leaving your phones in your car– so no one could bother you, of course– you soon are lost in the forest. Night approaches, the temperature drops and you seem to be walking in circles, getting no closer to where you parked your car. You stumble upon fresh tracks in the snow made from what appears to be two people, one set of tracks possibly chasing the other. You start to follow the tracks hoping they’ll lead you out of the woods. From there Following Me becomes a gripping thriller, the kind of story I shouldn’t have played right before going to bed. The story isn’t anything particularly original but even as I scoffed from time to time at the occasional cliched situation, as I read through the game’s text I had to force myself to slow down. Not because I was in a hurry to get through the game, but because I was anxious to find out what happened next.
– Venus Meets Venus: The game is clear from the start that it is not a love story (even though it kinda, sorta is). Girl meets nice girl, girl tries to change for nice girl, there’s more going on with nice girl than girl realizes… At times I felt out of my depth with this game since it drifts into a culture that I’m wholly unfamiliar with, but even so, I never felt too far asea. Venus Meets Venus is about a relationship that’s formed between two imperfect people and often felt incredibly relatable even if I’ve not specifically experienced some of the particulars. Plus, the game is very well written and designed, even if it gets a little over enthusiastic with this number metaphor-thing it tries to do.
– Milk Party Palace: When I was ready to play my next competition entry the randomizer loaded this game and after reading its blurb I got nervous. Something, something, Alec Baldwin, surreal comedy– oh, no. I tried to erase my brain and not judge the story unfairly before I had even started. It was pointless, however, as the game did exactly what I was afraid it would do; be weird and random without really saying anything at all. Perhaps the “story” got better once I collected all the milk bottles for Alec Baldwin (yep, you heard me), but somehow I doubt it. I had to stop playing after about 15 minutes.
– Caroline: A few days passed before I had the time to write something up about Caroline and that extra time fueled my exasperation with the game. The story starts off with you on a date with a woman named Caroline and finishes with her trying to recruit you into her church/cult. It’s mostly empty in between, (and after, frankly). I committed a few Interactive Fiction no-no’s (I think) with this game; I restarted after multiple unsatisfactory finishes; I even dove into the source code of the game (gasp) just to try and see what I was missing. Turns out Caroline doesn’t have much of a beating heart, it’s just kinda boring.
– Zest: This…this is a hard one to talk about here. Zest cut right to the core of me. It cut right to a past I don’t entirely regret. Zest everyday. Spend paycheck(s) on Zest. Three months late on rent thanks to Zest. Zest stopped being enough. Until one day Zest woke me up, but that’s a story for another day. I don’t anymore. Everyone I knew from those days is gone or dead. Sometimes I wish I did. I fill that space with other things. I charge full speed into other things: family, hobbies, work. But they’re not Zest.
Zest won’t be for everyone. But it was for me. I played it repeatedly, seeking every ending, finding familiarity with every achievement.
I wish I had more time to play all of the entries into the competition but at least I met the minimum for judging. I cast my votes just in time. It was nice to be exposed to this sort of personal storytelling, presented in such a spare way. There’s no hiding a weak story behind flashy graphics and the writing had to speak for itself. I downloaded all the entries so I’ll keep trying them from time to time, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ve been missing.