Author Archives: Christopher Huang

MacDougal and Me at the Spring Thing Fair

Everyone loves a fair, and with the onset of Spring, the fair is where the village casts off its winter bundling, and steps out with ankles flashing, to see what the ripening year has to offer. Macdougal was no exception, though, being a fictional character and an urban one at that, he had never actually seen an annual Spring Thing. Rather, that made him all the more eager for the experience. And so, resplendent in togs that had not seen the light of day since the Autumn chill first set in, we made our way to the fair grounds. Where a carnival geek immediately splattered me with chicken blood.

Magdougal winced. “Ooh,” he said, “that’ll never wash out.”

1. A Trial

Art has but one purpose, and that is to touch the soul. While I don’t care much for Jackson Pollock, I will admit that there might be something in his chaotic splatter that might speak to someone’s soul: imagined shapes, suggestion of movement, explosion of colour. Perhaps the author of “A Trial” imagines himself to be the Jackson Pollock of the IF world. “A Trial” is something of a surreal mess. (Ah, but if you want the surreal, you ought to go with Dali or Magritte.) But IF is neither painting nor sculpture: those things are meant to be taken as a whole and contemplated at leisure. IF is more like music or literature — the “F” stands for “fiction”, after all — which involve a time component. They are experienced sequentially. And what can I say about “A Trial” in the light of this discussion? The experience was neither entertaining nor edifying. The tale, if there was one, lacked coherence. Lacking coherence, it kept me at a distance and thus failed to engage. (Also, the interminable faux­bureaucratic nonsense forms were extremely tiresome.) Failing to engage with it, I found myself losing faith in it. And losing faith in it, I began to doubt its sincerity. That left me with nothing but nothing but nothing.

To the author: I’m sure it’s all very clever, but please understand that you are not putting together a painting. I can’t step back from your collage to view it as a whole. Why are you doing this?

The carnival geek made no apologies, at least none that I could understand, but wandered off into the fairgrounds. “I’m fairly sure,” I said, a little crossly as I tried to clean away the blood, “that same fellow once threw a bowl of pancake batter at me. And here is one handkerchief that I will not be blowing my nose into today.”

“There are worse breakfasts than raw pancake batter. Besides, it’s a sort of performance art, isn’t it?”

“Don’t make me spend the whole of this article lecturing you, Macdougal.”

“Well, chin up. It’s not so bad. Here, I got us something from the beer tent. Cheers!”

Whatever Macdougal had fetched from the beer tent, it was assuredly not beer. It burned its way down my throat like cheap whiskey and then settled warmly in the pit of my stomach like expensive brandy. “Macdougal!” I gasped, coughing, “what in heaven’s name is this?” Whatever Macdougal told me in reply was lost in the warm buzz singing in my ears. I understood none of it.

2. Doggerland

I’m not sure what this was. There were some screen effects, the purpose of which I am unclear, and a collage of imagery … but this was not “A Trial” by any means. This one actually held together for a positive experience.

I think that a good deal of it was in the promise of the premise. “Doggerland” did not pretend to be offering a journey or a quest: it was clear that I was being told a story. The story may have been a little obfuscated by the poetics, but it was there. It was a firm foundation that inspired trust. And while I am unsure about the supportive or narrative reasons for those poetic curlicues, I will admit that they add some aesthetic value. To be clear, I don’t mean that they add to the story itself, rather that they add to the experiencing of it. Like background music.

It was short, though; very short, and as far as I can tell there is but one significant choice to be made. But perhaps that is a good thing. Like alcohol, like that astounding raspberry­flavoured dessert beer (which I maintain was more cordial than beer) I once had, like faux­bureaucratic nonsense forms, some things are best enjoyed in small doses.

I had to decline the offer of a second glass: a single glass was pleasant, but it was early in the day and I could tell that any more of the heady stuff might make for an unpleasant experience. Besides, facing me right now was the fortune-­teller’s tent.

I remembered the fortune­-teller from fairs past: I remembered always coming away curious and puzzled and thinking, “next time, I shan’t be taken in.” Well, here was the next time, and I was determined to crack the mystery somehow. “Excuse me,” I said to Macdougal. I handed him my empty glass, then strode confidently into the darkened tent. Inside, I crossed the veiled lady’s palm with a silver sixpence, and waited to see what she had to tell me this time.

Incense blew across the table. I saw Tarot cards flutter and spin, and bangles made of bone slide noiselessly down elongated wrists. A hoarse voice whispered: “Make your own fate.”

“Wait, what?”

But she was gone. So was the tent. Around me, the fair-­goers milled about, unaware of my experience. And Macdougal was still nattering on about beer.

3. Ruiness

Porpentine has evolved, I think. “Ruiness” addresses the game aspect of interactive fiction more and better than anything I’ve seen thus far. I actually felt as though I were progressing by virtue of my own wits here, and that, I think, is what makes interactive fiction truly interactive: that sense of having accomplished your ending.

There is, of course, the usual fantastic imagery one has come to expect from Porpentine. It would not be Porpentine without that sense of having been transported into a half­-understood alien world, with a rich (and decaying) culture all its own. I do feel, however, that the “fiction” aspect seems weaker than in those other games. It might be the price of that alien landscape: unfamiliar ideas are harder to grasp, and harder to convey in the smaller, bite-­sized chunks of text required by more “game”-heavy IF.

Also, in spite of my sense of accomplishment, I have no idea what I accomplished. I don’t know if it was a bug in the game, some incompatibility with my particular hardware setup or if I was perhaps just missing something, but the ending for me was … rather abrupt and inexplicable. Or perhaps I haven’t yet accomplished the Best Possible Ending, which means I Must Play More.

“Next time,” I said. “Next time, I shan’t be taken in.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What…?” I stared at Macdougal. Had he really not witnessed the entire episode with the fortune-teller? But I was saved from having to explain it further when he suddenly turned his head, eyes shining, and trotted off towards a stand of oaks. I could hear the strains of music coming from that direction: no doubt that was what had caught my friend’s attention.

When I caught up with Macdougal, he was staring with rapt attention at an attractive young musician: a woman in a cheongsam, black hair elaborately braided, a violin singing from her shoulder. She was, indeed, very beautiful, and she played beautifully: but after several minutes, I began to feel restless.

“Let’s at least stay to the end of this piece,” Macdougal whispered.

“I know this piece of music. It goes on forever.”

“She only knows three pieces by heart,” whispered another bystander. “But they’re each an hour long.”

4. Sunrise

“Sunrise” is gorgeously presented. There’s something about the artwork (and the fact alone that there is artwork speaks volumes) that makes me think of pre-­war Shanghai, or of those Solvil et Titus TV ads from the early 90s. I think it’s the facial features of the characters. They look a little bit Asian. So, when the “good” love interest was introduced as “Shiye”, I became convinced that it was Mandarin, pronounced “Shih­-Yeh”. It was a little exciting, for me: I like seeing my race represented. This might have been a misconception on my part, however.

Beautiful as the presentation is, the actual interaction is very sparse. There is a lot of text in between each choice, and, as a consequence, not much in the way of choice. Thankfully, there is an option that allows you to skip text passages that you have read before when you replay: this saves one the annoyance of fishing for those small­-but-possibly-significant changes wrought by different choices.

Things are painted a little too black ­and ­white for my tastes, however. The “bad” love interest, Abel, is a little too bad, and therefore unconvincing as a love interest. Some good is ascribed to him in the form of his relationship with James, a servant (or slave?) boy in his care, but this is barely explored, and doesn’t seem to fit into a coherent image with what is already known about him. As well, Shiye’s democratic ideals are just a little too perfect. We don’t get into why anyone might think they’re a bad idea, other than that they challenge the privileged status quo. And we should: Our heroine, as a member of the aristocracy, should have been steeped in monarchist rhetoric since the day of her birth and if she isn’t, we ought to know why. I wonder if perhaps so much time was spent on the presentation that the development of the story had to be sacrificed.

It’s a game with a lot of potential to be fleshed out into something much bigger and deeper. When all is said and done, I would be interested in seeing what else this world has to offer.

When I finally dragged Macdougal away from the musician a half hour later, she was still on the same piece of music. “Come on,” I said, “Jellicoe’s somewhere about, I know, and he ought to be up to his elbows in small children by now.”

I never did like Jellicoe very much. He has all the sincerity of a crocodile trying to sell you on a haircut. But if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s at organising small children and keeping them entertained. Naturally, he’s always the first choice to be in charge of the crafts table where all the village parents leave their children for the day’s outing.

He thrust a large wicker basket at us as soon as we came within spitting distance. “Here,” he said, “grab some materials and join in. The fun’s just beginning.” Without looking, Macdougal plunged both hands into the basket and came up with a sponge, a strip of foil, and a knitting needle.

“What am I supposed to do with these?” he asked.

But Jellicoe, in a whirl of paper scraps and glitter, had run off to attend to some small but enterprising young artists at the other end of the table.

“You’ll have to make do with what you’ve got,” I told Macdougal. “You should have looked a little more carefully before you picked out whatever rubbish Jellicoe had available in his crafts basket.”

Macdougal sat down and arranged his three prizes on the table before him. “Maybe I can make a sort of table ornament…?” he faltered. I couldn’t help but chuckle at his discomfiture.

5. Mere Anarchy

“Mere Anarchy” presents us with a world in which magic exists, and its secrets are jealously guarded by an elite society of practitioners; meanwhile, there are small, marginalised groups of magic­ users operating outside this elite society: the “anarchists”, of whom our hero is one. The story is presented in Undum, which seems to have as its central conceit this idea that one is, through one’s choices, crafting a single, coherent story, one which can be read from beginning to end once the game is done.

But to me, the most intriguing thing about “Mere Anarchy” is the way in which the central puzzle is organised: one begins by selecting one’s tools, without any clear idea of what one might encounter; and then one selects one of two targets ­­ or, rather, one of two collection of obstacles that the previously­-chosen tools are meant to overcome. While each tool may be used in either of the two possible scenarios, I get the distinct impression that each tool is best suited for one or the other, but not both. It’s a little bit backwards, like choosing questions to match one’s answers. But in a way, given the way the story is set up and given the nature of Undum as a vehicle for producing these discrete, coherent artifacts as an end-product of play, it’s almost as if one were changing reality to suit one’s available resources. That’s magic.

I’m not entirely sure how much impact the rest of the choices have on the story. They may just be window dressing. But the overall end-result is pleasing, a coherent whole, and satisfying.

“And what have you made?”

“It’s a magic wand. See, you wave it, and magic happens.” Macdougal waved his “wand”, but the only magic I could see happening was the flash of light reflecting off the foil-wrapped sponge star stuck on the end of it.

“I’m very impressed,” I said, completely unimpressed.

“In that case,” Macdougal countered, sticking his “wand” into a jacket pocket, “perhaps we should move on? Should we go back to the violinist?”

I shook my head. “I think the treasure hunt is about to begin. There’s old Mr Gresham on the podium, and I see a box of envelopes beside him — those would be the clues to get us started, I’ll wager….”

I have to admit that the treasure hunt is always the highlight of the fair as far as I’m concerned. Clue in hand, Macdougal and I hared off as soon as the starting pistol was fired. I’d never done the hunt in a team before, but then I’d never won it either: and Macdougal, once absorbed in the activity, was a dedicated hunter.

6. Toby’s Nose

Maybe I’m old-­fashioned, but this is more the sort of thing I expect when I think of IF. It’s about the puzzle to be unravelled, and the exploration of the story. In “Toby’s Nose”, the puzzle IS the exploration. We’re a dog here, a dog with a sense of smell so sophisticated it can conjure up entire scenes from a the scents around him, and further examine these scenes as though he were actually there. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for this one.

So, we’re investigating a murder. To this end, we’re examining each scent around us, and then examining (well, smelling) the scents within the image conjured by the initial scent, and then further in, and yet further in…. It’s like opening up a Russian nesting doll. But what it also soon becomes is an exercise in checking every single noun in the text, in case there might be more information to be had there. A textual pixel-hunt, if you will.

I don’t mind that sort of thing. Noun-hunting is easier and more interesting than pixel-hunting, in my opinion. What emerges is a story in which each character has his or her own tale to tell, their tales existing independently but weaving together into the tapestry of the larger plot. That’s a very fine thing, the ideal one aims for when dealing with multiple characters.

Interestingly, the game doesn’t tell you when you’ve found enough evidence to make your accusation. You’re a dog, so you can’t explain your logic to the humans around you, anyway. It’s up to you, the player, to consider all the information given, and to figure it out on your own. The game doesn’t tell you if one clue is more significant than another, nor does it ring any alarm bells when significant matches are made between one detail and another. On the one hand, trusting the player — leaving open the possibility of a solution found through save­and-restore guesswork­­ strikes me as a negative thing. And yet, there is something to be said for trusting the player to think for himself. Personally, I enjoyed the exploration, the digging deeper into this family’s closets, the game of discovery. It’s why I like IF.

The hamper, first prize for solving the treasure hunt, was rather large — a little too bulky to manage on my own. “Of course,” Mr Gresham wheezed, “that’s because the treasure hunt is best done in teams of two or more. You knew that, surely?”

“No,” I admitted. All those years of going it alone! Ah well, all I needed now was a hand from Macdougal, but the fellow had slipped off somewhere, leaving me to handle the prize myself. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps if I opened it up and extracted the contents? But no, there was a reason everything had been packed together into a hamper, and that was that the prize was several bottles of … that strange not-beer that Macdougal had fetched from the beer tent earlier in the day.

“A year’s supply,” chuckled Mr Gresham. “You’re going to want help shifting that lot.” He waved someone over: of all people, the carnival geek.

“Ah, I’m sure there’s no need: my friend will be back momentarily.” But Mr Gresham was getting deaf: he only smiled genially, clapped me on the shoulder and went off to join his gaggle of political cronies. The carnival geek leered unsettlingly, and I took a step back.

“Oh hey!” Thank goodness, it was Macdougal. He was weaving through the crowd with the violinist close behind him. “Hey!” he repeated as he drew up, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to be a little busy this evening. Yu­-er and I are having supper at the hotel….” The violinist — Yu-er — smiled demurely and bowed her head. The carnival geek continued to leer at me unsettlingly.

“But … Macdougal, what about the treasure hunt prize?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll manage.” Macdougal fished out the “magic wand” he’d made at Jellicoe’s craft table — a sponge cut into a star shape, wrapped in foil and stuck on the end of a knitting needle — and handed it to me. “Here, maybe this will help.”

“What on earth am I supposed to do with this? Wave it and expect miracles?” I was a tad miffed with Macdougal at this point, I admit. I brandished the “wand” at him threateningly. “Look! I’m waving the wand and nothing is happening! Oh, maybe I’m supposed to say a magic word too.


I was sitting in the fortune-teller’s tent with a year’s supply of mystery liquor.

I put Macdougal’s magic wand down on the table between us. “I didn’t make this,” I said. “My friend Macdougal made it. Does that count?”

The fortune-teller shrugged and reached for one of the bottles. “There are worse fates,” she said. “Cheers.”