Category Archives: Issue 62

Issue #62: Letter From the Editor and Call For Submissions

Good afternoon! We’ve wrapped up what has proven to be an unusually historical month for IF:

  • The XYZZY Awards, for the first time ever, were dominated by commercial IF, notably Meg Jayanth and Inkle’s excellent steampunk piece and Best Game winner 80 Days. Ever since the beginnings of the hobbyist IF boom, authors, readers and observers alike have speculated about whether commercial interactive fiction would ever resurface, let alone become as half ubiquitous — and financially viable — as it was during  the ’80s. For years, people have argued that this day was approaching, slowly; several commercial publishers have come and gone, and increasingly come and stayed. And while commercial IF might not yet be a financial heavyweight (though it must be said that the creative economy is an entirely different thing in the 2010s than the 1980s), the past year has proven that for the first time in decades, it’s competing at the highest levels of acclaim.
  • Going back in time a bit: what’s the first IF game ever written? Many of you likely answered Adventure — not so! Wander (1974), one of many mainframe games previously thought lost, was recently unearthed from the crumbling world of digital history, and soon after added to Github and compiled for Windows and Linux by the French IF community. Tantalizingly, it’s not merely a simple dungeon crawl like Colossal Cave, Zork or even Hunt the Wumpus, but includes a tool for prospective writers to create “non-deterministic fantasy stories” of their own. The spirit of collaboration is not a new thing; it’s baked in from the beginning.
  • While we at SPAG are loath to call ourselves as historic as either of the previous, we are publishing our first issue in some time! And though I’m biased, I think it’s a great one. We’ve got a new online presence. We’ve got not one but two covers, both by J. Robinson Wheeler, and they deserve to be seen in high-res; check them out here and here. We’ve got plans to roll out SPAG in several new forms, from plaintext to a printable magazine, over the new few weeks and months. (Want to help? Get in touch!)

    And last, but not least, we have pieces on each of the issue’s themes:


  • Hugo Labrande, “>JUSTIFY, HEIGHTEN, SAY YES: Interactive Fiction as Improv
    IF is often described in theatrical metaphors — scenes, stages, props. Labrande makes a case for IF to be considered specifically as improvisational theater: a collaboration between performers and audience, working in tandem rather than at odds, to produce the idea that anything can happen.


  • Marius Müller, “Poetry Is What Gets Lost in Translation: notes on translating PataNoir and Sunday Morning
    As prizes for several successive IFcomps, Müller offered translations of winners’ work from English into German, and the authors that chose the prize presented interesting challenges: a wordplay-based detective story, a historical Victorian epic. The process, and the resulting product, falls somewhere between preserving the original meaning and collaborating on an entirely new work.



The cornerstone of each issue of SPAG, we have capsule blurbs as well as long-form reviews of the spring’s major releases, including:

And last, but not least, we have our…


ShuffleComp is nearly upon us, and we are looking for reviewers! Same idea as always: capsule reviews, quick and snappy, like a three-minute pop song. (Musical accompaniment optional.) We are also particularly interested in SPAG Specifics on the spring’s offerings, and especially the Spring Thing Back Garden — though, as always, we’re open to whatever you have something to say about!

As for longer-form pieces: befitting the news, the theme for issue #63 is WANDERING! As always this is semi-optional; interpret this as strictly or as loosely as you’d like — let your mind wander, if you will. If you need inspiration, some ideas might include: exploring story worlds, delving into IF developments around the world, in real life and on the ‘Net; wandering through the far reaches of what IF can do, or the history of what it’s done in the past; and hey, of course, there’s always the game itself.

As always, send all pitches to, along with a brief bio of yourself, and writing samples if you prefer. Also appreciated: a rough sense of word count (see the pieces in this issue for a guideline) and an estimated time of completion (aim for June or July).

We highly encourage submissions from experienced IF critics as well as newcomers, and we are particularly interested in pitches by women, people of color and others who are under-represented in IF writing. However, all are welcome, including those who have previously expressed interest in writing for the website.

Thank you for reading and keeping us alive all these years! Let’s make #63, and the issues to come, just as strong.

Poetry Is What Gets Lost in Translation: notes on translating PataNoir and Sunday Morning

I love the English and the German languages equally. The process of translation fascinated me since I first realized I could watch my DVDs in English, so wanting to translate an IF game came naturally to me. I offered a translation as an IFComp prize three times, and the first two I completed were PataNoir by Simon Christiansen, which took fifth place in the 2011 competition, and Sunday Afternoon by Christopher Huang, the fifth-place winner in 2012. And I’m currently working on Origins (2014) by Vincent Zeng and Christopher Martens.

Translating the Text

Let’s begin with some general observations. Both translated games are written in Inform 7, for which there is an excellent German translation available, called GerX. This replaces all standard library messages, lays the groundwork for gendered nouns, and comes with a translation of Basic Help Menu.

My work starts, naturally, with a copy of the original source (I marvel at just how organized an I7 source file can look, complete with annotations, but I digress).

The easiest order in which to translate the text turns out to be just top to bottom.

This leaves the least chance of missing something, and trying to piece together code bits that belong, say, to a certain scene (all rooms, NPC dialogue, error messages and so on) turned out to be a major headache that led to unnecessary confusion.

All objects in the code retain their original name, because anything else would muddle the original code unnecessarily. This means that every single room, object and NPC gets its own printed name and synonyms — and nouns being gendered in German, that as well. (For extra fun, some of the synonyms have different genders.)

It’s actually quite straightforward. Grab a piece of text, translate it, copy back in.

But text with variations turned out be another tricky bit. German has not quite lost its cases and inflections like English has. Often, a phrase needed some careful rewording to work with the existing code structure and to not sound completely awkward and artificial. The German versions of these descriptions often ended up far more convoluted than the original, and hammering them into readable and grammatically correct end results caused more than a few bilingual curses.


At first glance, Simon’s work seemed like a tough nut. For those unfamiliar with it, PataNoir is a hard-boiled detective story based on similes, with each object in a simile implemented as a separate, interactive object. Luckily, most of the these were straightforward enough to translate. In one or two cases, I took the liberty to make some of the similes more appropriate for German readers. For instance, the grass that “(…)has been meticulously groomed. The strands are all exactly alike, like citizens in a socialist utopia.” became “Bürger im real existierenden Sozialismus,” a friendly jab at fellow Germans from the former GDR.

Apart from the similes, PataNoir is pretty straightforward hardboiled fiction, and it was a joy to use the appropriate German vernacular. I can recall only two points that gave me pause. The rich old man with a missing daughter in the game is called Baron Ahrend von Bülow, which is eerily similar to German comedian Vicco von Bülow (Loriot). Interestingly, Simon was actually refering to Claus von Bülow, a Danish man who was accused of murdering his wife but later acquitted. There was a movie and everything. In the German version he is now called Johann Albert von Korff, after an 18th century Freemason. (Thanks, Cabal!)


The other thing was a thorn in my side for literal months. In one pleasant moment of the game, inconsequential to the larger plot, the protagonist rests in a garden and finds that “the air is cold and clear, like the justice we all seek, but never find.” Cold and clear are not adjectives you can use for justice in German at all. And everything else I could think of didn’t work with either justice or air at all. I was stumped and angry, and it was one of those never disappearing points on my to-do list.

Months later, I ran into a girl I had a crush on in elementary school on the street. We nearly didn’t recognize each other. A day later, Reilly now finds the air “as pure as first love”. And if he tries to take it, alas, “You gave up chasing it a long time ago. Better focus on your case.”

Sunday Afternoon

Where PataNoir was based on its excellent mechanics, Sunday Afternoon is a more literary work of traditional parser IF. Early on, Christopher proposed that I move the setting of the game to Germany in 1893 and 1916. I enthusiastically agreed, and this produced some interesting conundrums.

A lot of the backstory of the game hinges on its Victorian setting, with strict house rules and a certain nostalgic admiration for war and stiff patriotism. For obvious historical reasons, we Germans don’t quite have this quaint kind of memory for this episode in our history. This gives the whole game, for purely extra-textual reasons, a slightly bitter tinge not at all present in the original.

Moving the settings to Prussia also meant some interesting changes to in-game events. The Sepoy Mutiny became the Battle of Dybbøl. Wales became Weimar. All the characters names’ are borrowed from either All Quiet on the Western Front or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The city name has been changed to Christofstadt as an obvious nod to the original author. St. Swithin’s cathedral is now called St. Donatus, a more appropriate German saint. The Owl Service, virtually unknown here, has been replaced by Goethe’s Faust. I had to dig around some libraries to find the exact German quote for one or two of the boxed quotes, and a few are replaced with better-known German equivalents. Rewatching Indiana Jones (for research!) was less of a chore. Since the game’s comp release, the news about the Hello Kitty mascot being a girl has made the rounds, and the German description of the cat trinket now reflects that. One thing remained the same in both versions of the game, though: The guys in the bonus content are each in Flanders, 1916, scared for their lives, happy for the distraction.

Each of these translations took a few months and felt at time likes writing a completely new work of IF. It was interesting to dive into someone else’s world and try to be faithful and yet transformative enough to create a work that’s true to the source. But it’s also a huge load of work. So this year, and from now on, I’ve changed the prize to focus on Twine games, or at least games where no recoding is necessary. Looking to the future, this is also a more viable course for those from the smaller scenes inclined to translate works into English, not vice versa — Hannes Schüler already did this with The Story of Mr. P in the 2014 Spring Thing. It’s a great way to expose works to a greater audience, as the thing when translating into german is that you can safely assume everyone has already played it. (My thread announcing “Sonntag Nachmittag” on the German forum has 0 responses.)

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.”

Choose Your Own Path: Taking CYOA IRL with the Active Fiction Project

13 in context

Take off the Oculus and power down: all you need to play Gone Home is a house. Go figure! The graphics leap past the uncanny valley; the sound design is remarkable in its verisimilitude, with a whole radio full of stations and live DJs. The only problem is that there are so many distracting details (look, the toilets all flush!) that it’s easy to stray from the path of the main quest and get sidetracked in emergent side-stories.

The Active Fiction Project — what are the odds that in this world, “active fiction” would evolve parallel to interactive fiction? — has made it easy for you. In place of a map and modeled rooms, they present you a gameplay environment of — the world. That is, a subset of the world, consisting of one neighbourhood, Riley Park, in the city of Vancouver, Canada. And in this neighbourhood, story nodes with branching choices sporadically appear on laminated printouts attached to street signs and lamp posts with zap straps, the most low-tech version of augmented reality imaginable. Each placard contains a story segment and presents a few choices at the end, which can be invoked by visiting specifically described physical locations (eg. “the SE corner (aha, the artificial imposition of compass directions persists!) of Quebec St. and 26th Avenue”) where the next cards, and their story sections, are to be found. In a neat bit of contextual dovetailing, the setting of the story events coincides with the location of the cards, so cards found in parks will describe outdoor activities there, cards in commercial areas will concern themselves with visits to local businesses, etc: the map IS the territory!

The project is the brainchild of regional planner Jaspal Marwah, who moonlights as the public art coordinator of the Vancouver Public Space Network. An example of their previous public art projects might include the surprise appearance of several brighly-decorated upright pianos installed at neighbourhood street corners for pedestrians to use to channel their inner Jerry Lee Lewis, but as Jaspal has noted, public art is rarely literary in nature: for all the murals or mosaics installed or cacophonous live-music street parties (or public transit flashmobs) blared, insertion of simple words into public spaces falls way behind. They’re not entirely unknown, but will typically take the form of short and ambiguous poetic phrases expensively cut into sheet metal or programmed into LED displays — not much to sink your teeth into. (Author Douglas Coupland had a residency at a local hotel’s marquee a few years back, but let’s face it, he’s no Jenny Holzer.) And interaction with literary public art? Why, it’s nigh unheard-of!

Jaspal brought the matter to University of British Columbia Creative Writing inst16ructor Timothy Taylor, who posed the challenge to his students. The first to rise to meet it, Nicole Boyce, presented the inaugural Active Fiction story in May of 2014, in conjunction with a series of walking tours celebrating the ideas of urban planner Jane Jacobs. It was entitled The Raffle, and concerns itself with an attempt by a new arrival to town to make some friends in the area. (SPOILER ALERT: A meat draw in the Legion Hall figures prominently, lending the piece its name.)

The cards were up for nearly three weeks, and then they came down again. Suddenly, the game unplayable, the story unreadable — all we were left with was the Monopoly board without any of the dice, cards, money or tokens! Our mission, we chose to accept… this message had now self-destructed. Thanks for the memories! (This author documented the cards for posterity,
but reading them removed from their geographical context is as incomplete an experience as an Infocom marathon with no feelies! Not a great candidate for the Situationist game of navigating one area using the map of another; this would be more akin to watching your favorite movie, remade with new actors — they’d speak the same lines, but it just wouldn’t quite be right.)

The second and most recent work of Active Fiction went up in November of 2015, again for a limited lifespan of a few weeks. “In Search of Little Mountain”, by playwright Sarah Higgins, was nominally concerned with a search for the origin of the neighbourhood’s name; like the previous story, it also presented low-stakes slice-of-life vignettes somewhere between a
Seinfeld episode and a Samuel Beckett play, where zany characters interact with vaguely-defined (AFGNCAAP) readers in broad strokes with many, many paces between opportunities for story paragraph injection and game-choice availability.


In a sense these little scattered scripts are plays that are 99% intermission, doubling down as scene changes. Similarities come to mind with the “Zombies, Run!” fitness app for smartphones, which makes you travel distances (but nowhere in
particular) at speed to successfully (avoid being eaten by zombies and) further major plot points in a post-apocalyptic audiodrama. Active Fictions, by contrast, make you move to very specific places at any pace you like to advance vague events and happenings in the mundane everyday here and now. (Also, to be clear, none of them contain any zombies — thus far.)

The Active Fiction Project turns out all the lights between those handful of weeks when their stories are up on the streets, so it’s difficult to know exactly when to expect them to spin back into motion. That said, with the limited sample size of two releases to date to work with, one might reasonably conjecture that we’ll see another installment out this month — for the
series’ first anniversary! Perhaps fans of (inter)active fiction who find themselves pounding the pavements of Canada’s most expensive and least satisfied city might find at least one free and public thing to look forward to.

Additional links:

SPAG Specifics: The Writer Will Do Something

Whenever I read the seemingly unkillable complaints about modern IF and its “uninteractivity,” I’m plagued with flashbacks to 1998. (Boy, I hated 1998. I had helmet hair.) 1998 was the year of Photopia, a near-universally acclaimed work of interactive fiction in which nothing you do will derail the crushing inevitability of the plot one inch, which is of course the point. Two years later came Rameses, a more brutal, polarizing sort of work, and its detractors delighted in pointing out that you can type WAIT dozens of times and let the narrative shuffle you listlessly through the motions without any intervention or initiative on your part — not that much could pierce through your inner defeated stubbornness. Which is, of course, also the point. To many of you I’m recapping oft-recapped history, surveying the long-dried battlefields of flame wars better off forgotten; and yet “uninteractivity’’ keeps appearing fresh, always an accusation of ineptitude and accidental failure, never deliberate or a deliberate point.

I was reminded of all this mess after reading Matthew S. Burns’ excruciatingly entertaining Twine piece The Writer Will Do Something. You’re employed by the AAA developer of ShatterGate, a Frankensteinally unwieldy shooter, as the lead writer of the latest sequel — a job you know you have no business doing. It isn’t imposter syndrome; you’ve neither played the previous games nor have any real intention to, and the current entry is a thicket of lore you can barely hack. You are as imposter as they come — and yet you’re no more an imposter than the rest of your team, a motley assortment of hopers, no-hopers, middle managers and babysitters talking and pacing through a morning meeting about the game’s inevitable prospects: “unambiguously catastrophic.” What follows are several hours of circling around cold opens, cinematic opens, Dark Souls, “visual quilts,” doodles on whiteboards, guns with swords on them – and absolutely no real progress.

Needless to say, most people with game dev experience are probably fighting off their own flashbacks, but you certainly don’t need that experience to appreciate the disaster. As someone who used to work on the production desk of newspapers, I felt a certain sad kinship with the poor harried audio tech who rushes in mid-meeting from Greenland – the nickname of the audio department, cold and distant: why can’t you tell <s>audio</s> copy about things that affect copy? (The audio tech, it should be noted, is female, which contributes to a certain subtext throughout the piece; while the PC’s gender is never mentioned, the way they’re continually talked over, around and past resonated with entirely too many stories from my female colleagues, not to mention myself.)

What The Writer Will Do Something isn’t, exactly, is fun. It’s funny, certainly – Burns is a good enough writer that it’s worth going through each path just to extract every last quip– and thoroughly polished, but it’s also an exercise in calculated frustration. None of your choices matter; the difference between a courageous action and a weaselly cop-out is entirely in the PC’s head. Keep your head down? Doesn’t matter. Stand up to your coworkers’ various haranguing? Doesn’t matter. Attempt the classic “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you’re cool, fuck you I’m out?” Nobody even pays attention. The story has three endings, all of which drop like (and are accompanied by) a horror-movie audio sting and none of which seem to have much correlation to anything you’ve said; I’ve gone through about a dozen times now and I’m still not convinced they’re not random. You quite literally cannot win. And it doesn’t take too much searching to find people’s complaints about this, which derail quite readily into complaints about Twine and interactivity in general.

Your first clue should be the overwhelming quality of the work, the snappiness of the writing, the polish of the design (I like to think it’s a little joke about the pecking order that the audio is particularly effective); this is not an amateur’s product. Your next clue, and really your last, should be the title: the writer will do something. Much like (again) Rameses, which devotes a significant portion of its runtime trapping the PC in a not-quite-two-sided conversation with his friend (“friend”) rhapsodizing about the free will the player consistently fails to have, Burns milks the game-dev arguments for every drop of comedy and dramatic irony and the choice-based medium itself for every drop of vicarious pain. Take one passage toward the middle of the game, after a couple protests have gone nowhere and after your boss delivers what sure looks like an ultimatum:

Your mind is a bright, glittery cascade of thoughts. Unfortunately, you’re not able to isolate or hold any single one of them. Everything in your head is water. Making a decision, in this room, has too many implications.

What follows is another choice point: three decisions, every implication and worry and possibility laid out in your head. The entire thing is over 500 words, and it’s rendered in text that scrolls faster than even the quickest reader can keep up with. As the prose goes on it gets steadily angrier, more earnest, closer to a grand statement – but you probably won’t get that far on your first playthrough, as before you can keep up, the screen advances to:

“I vote cold open,” says Shawn, before you can speak.

Mike nods. “Yep. Agreed. Cold open.”

Troy says, “Okay, done. Cold open. Next issue?”

(The final nail into the reader: everything in the story up to this point was about how sucky that cold open was. Wait, no, one more nail: the remainder of the story is… more discussion of the cold open. Ultimatum, my gunsword.)

It’s among the most maddening uses of macros I’ve encountered lately. It breaks most of the rules of player friendliness and accessibility and satisfaction that are endlessly hashed over in the plot; it undermines its own writing — the point of which is to get to be read, right? And yet it’s as much a setpiece as any elaborate puzzle or intricately designed object; it immerses the player totally and viscerally in a setting and feeling, in this case mind-searing bureaucratic frustration. In real life, that’d be, well, mind-searing; conveyed by fiction, it’s high praise.

>JUSTIFY, HEIGHTEN, SAY YES: Interactive Fiction as Improv

Interactive fiction is a magic trick, and it’s always been a magic trick. It’s sleight of hand to try and convince you that this pre-programmed robot that we built three months ago is actually telling a story that’s changing for you right now. That’s the goal, to make it come to life.

Jon Ingold, Gamasutra

Renowned UCB performer Will Hines is also the author of a few IF works; one of these, Harold Night, is set during an improv performance, minutes before you’re set to step on stage, and incorporates improv principles (and inside baseball). Its last scene, in particular, is very clever; it remarks that improv principles are generally given as verbs — “justify,” “heighten,” “say yes” — and makes parser commands out of them to create a sequence where you have to make an improv scene go forward using those principles.

As another practitioner of both IF and improv, the more I pursued those hobbies, the more I realized they had a lot in common; after all, one ancestor of IF is GMing in tabletop RPGs, which requires improvisational skills. The history of IF and IF criticism is full of theater metaphors — it’s even there in the code itself, which deals in “scenes,” and objects “on-stage” and off. And both fields involve telling a story while reacting to someone else’s input — the player in IF, the other performers in improv. As such, they have interesting parallels.

Improvisational theatre — acting out a performance with no set text, dependent purely upon actors making decisions on the fly and audience participation — has been present in many cultures for several centuries, from the Commedia dell’Arte to 20th-century Western innovators like Konstantin Stanislavski, Jacques Copeau, Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone. There are many aspects of improv that are of interest to IF: for instance, how to write interesting and efficient scenes, build stories, build characters, manage drama and manage audience expectations. I would like to focus here on attitudes towards your fellow improviser, what it means for the scene and the audience’s enjoyment; I find there are interesting parallels with user experience in IF and in particular parser IF, which is what I do.

IF as improv 

Before starting, let’s clarify the metaphor of IF as improv. The game is probably an actor on stage, telling a story; but then is the player also on stage or in the audience? I’d argue that in this particular case, the player is a bit of both: an audience member, passive and listening to the story you’re telling them, but also an improviser, an active participant who directly interacts with the story and provides input. This rather vague answer is necessary to capture all the variety we can have in IF; one extreme might be on-rails games with minimal interactivity, the other puzzle-heavy sandbox games with no care given to coherence or story. Right away, this reframing of the problem makes those old heated debates of “games and interactivity” and “linear vs emergent storytelling” rear their heads, which indicates it is a pretty incisive one.

This analogy also highlights something that a lot of authors will tell you: how hard it is to create fully interactive and immersive worlds. Because obviously, what the previous analogy doesn’t capture is that an IF story is not literally an improviser: it is a computer program that you are creating to mimic one. We expect the work, an sophisticated automaton, to tell a changing story, to improvise with us; but so far, even with current knowledge in AI, we do not know how to do it. The reason is well-known; as Roger Giner-Sorolla puts it in Crimes Against Mimesis,

… the live referee has a rather unfair advantage over the programmer: the game-master bases NPC output on a highly sophisticated interactive algorithm synthesizing years of social observation and literary convention: the human mind.

And to that, I would also add that it can take humans several years to learn how to improvise well! However, the situation is not quite that dire: being able to improvise in any on-stage situation is a much broader skill than what we’re really expecting to find in a game, since we’re willing to let the game pick the setting, the characters, and the situation, and then ‘simply’ require to be able to be part of this scene and influence it, or at least being able to play with it.

We will now discuss a few of the basic improv principles, in order of complexity. One of the first principles you encounter in improvisation is the following:

Make your partner look good

In improv, you should ideally make the person who is on stage look like a competent improviser, or at least as competent as you are. After all, performers would rather play with people they can count on, and (most) audiences would much rather see two talented performers playing with teach other than one improviser mocking his poor partner. Doing so is simple: give them space to act, play with them and listen to them, value their ideas and reactions as being as important as yours, and work with them to catch mistakes and perhaps incorporate them into the scene. But failing to do so is also easy: out of fear or lack of self-confidence, a performer can shut another one’s ideas down, be unforgiving or cruel when they make mistakes, or even outright insult them. But this doesn’t mean every scene should be overflowing with positive sentiments and every relationship between characters be of love: you can absolutely make your partner look good even if you’re Pantalone beating Zanni up with a stick, if you listen to them and riff off their ideas.

How does that apply to IF? I believe that this concept highlights a major difference in modern-day IF compared to older works: modern-day IF truly “makes the player look good”. Indeed, it was common practice in older games to behave in ways that were directly adversarial to the player, like making fun of the player for entering the “wrong” input, or killing the player when they try the “wrong” thing, often while mocking them as well. The player is shut down and can’t play anymore, and sometimes they don’t even know why. Nowadays, this is more usually associated with first games by teenagers. Another issue would be fairness: using Andrew Plotkin’s cruelty scale, “cruel” games do not play with you, in that they don’t give you much feedback or work with you to catch mistakes, while “merciful” games will catch your mistakes and help you. Some players like this kind of challenge, for the satisfaction of coming out on top; however, the prevailing sentiment among players, increasingly, is toward pieces that work with them, value their input, treat them with respect, prove that they’re trustworthy. This explains why many adventure games from the ’80s have aged poorly, and why most of the canonical IF works of the past few years involve and immerse the player far more than in the past.

One way to make your partner look good, and one of the best-known principles of improv, can be stated as follows:

Say ‘yes’ to your partner’s offer

In other words, improvisers are encouraged to immediately accept whatever their partner is  offering or proposing as true and part of the scene. This is a big part of the magic of improv, the one that makes people say “how did they know this?” or “this must be rehearsed.” In theater, audience members always “say yes”; if an improviser says she’s the Queen of England, then the audience will think “OK, this is the Queen,” not “liar!” Good improvisers will also say yes, because they want to play along and build something. The opposite is to reject the offer, to say no: “What are you talking about? We don’t have kids!” or “What? this is not your daughter.” Effectively, this is pulling the rug from your partner’s feet: they wanted to play along with you, offered something, and you shut them down. Your partner looks bad, the audience might laugh at their expense, and most importantly, the scene hasn’t progressed at all. The audience will soon become frustrated and bored because nothing is happening; and they probably won’t come back, because what they came for wasn’t negativity and confusion but people collaborating and creating wonderful worlds out of an empty stage.

In IF, I would argue, the player always says yes: whatever setting you write about, the player will imagine; whatever object you mention, the player will add to their idea of the scene; whatever personality you give the character, the player will take into account. It is akin to suspension of disbelief: the player plays along. Of course, there’s always the odd player who purposely acts out of character to test the game’s reaction; but in general, players don’t type >examine hippo if you’ve just described the interior of a rocket ship. However, parser games say no a lot: this is well-known. As Graham Nelson wrote in his Craft of Adventure, “most of the player’s time at the keyboard is spent trying the wrong thing.” One can’t really blame parser games, given how hard it is to provide full interactivity and reactivity to input; however, it is worth exploring the different ways a game says no, and the consequences for the player’s experience.

The effects of a game blocking a player are the same as blocking on an improv stage: the audience might not seem to mind too much at first, but after a while will become bored (because nothing is happening) and brought down by the negativity, and very frustrated (because the piece doesn’t fulfill the implied “see, anything can happen!” promise). And the blocked improviser will be annoyed his ideas are not taken into consideration, and will not want to play with you for very long.

Blocking a player’s offer, in this context, means that sensible input that seems to play by the rules of the game and the world is rejected — for example, when an object is mentioned in a room description but the game responds as if it wasn’t there, or when a noise is mentioned but the game’s reply to “listen” is the default parser message, or when the description of a room still mentions an item that’s been taken. These are of course categorized as bugs, but it’s worth highlighting that they create a negative experience for the player because they deny what’s been previously established. Guess-the-verb problems are another instance of this, and they’re especially frustrating because they wouldn’t happen in real life. It would be akin to an improviser blocking by saying “you didn’t say the magic words!” Other ways of blocking the player include actions that seem to make sense in the context of the scene but aren’t implemented; solutions to puzzles that seem sensible, but don’t work, or worse, are arbitrarily forbidden by the game; and finally, hand-crafted responses that prevent the player from doing something and that prevent the scene from advancing if they occur too often.

Well-crafted responses, on the other hand, can be more than just blocking even if they don’t “work”; they could acknowledge it was a good guess, give a reason why the character wouldn’t do such a thing, or give more information or background at the same time, all of which will make the player feel like their input was at least taken into consideration. Furthermore, the player is likely to understand that the game cannot realistically allow them to do anything, and will probably not be too miffed by a few instances of blocking; if anything, the fact that the game has a tailor-made response may even impress.

The generalized blocking and negativity that can occur in parser IF should be treated seriously; compare choice-based games, where every single input from the player does something to move the story forward, and you can understand why this form is seen as more playable than parser IF. However, parser IF has the potential to deliver amazing experiences too: because the player is part audience and part improviser, the negative effects of blocking are compounded but the positive effects of accepting and saying yes are compounded too! The player can feel both amazed as a spectator at seeing all the offers accepted and integrated in a story that moves forward, and elated as an improviser to see that their ideas are actually taken into account and that the game is collaborating with them to tell a story together! There is ample proof that players (even novice) are very receptive to that; as examples, I would point to countless glowing reviews of Lost Pig, Violet and other “juicy” games, which put a lot of work into avoiding blocking the player.

The final notion, which furthers the concept of accepting offers, is the following:

Justify offers made in the scene

This is the part that comes right after accepting; it is not just saying “yes”, but “yes, and…” — that is to say, integrating the offer in the scene and building upon it. It denotes anything from finding a reason why someone just said what they did, to building a coherent setting, to linking two apparently unrelated concepts; it is a crucial skill for accepting offers, and audiences are usually very receptive to it, and react with laughter or amazement as the improvisers weave a coherent scene from seemingly nothing.

The opposite situation would be to have a setting where elements have been accepted, but not justified; that is, the connections to other elements are not clear, and things don’t really seem to fit nicely together. This situation is well-known to IF authors; Giner-Sorolla described it as “any aspect of an IF game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality”. Upon rereading Crimes Against Mimesis, one is struck by the similarity to the “justify!” imperative in improv. The chainsaw on the kitchen table is justified by the fact that it is a lumberjack’s kitchen; the sludge in Theatre is not justified by the setting of a theatre, etc. Similarly, red herrings could be seen as antithetical to what theatre practitioners know as “Chekhov’s gun”, and the (advanced) improv principle “fulfill your promises”.

But this is merely taking into account the almost static depiction of a world; what does it mean in terms of interactions with the player? We almost discussed justifying in the previous section, when talking about how well-crafted blocking messages could compensate the frustration with a justification that is coherent with the world or even adds details or texture to it. However, saying “yes and…” to the player’s actions is harder — it would require the game to justify why the character did this action, possibly by assigning a corresponding personality or history to the character. This is not always possible (e.g. why did the character decided to take all the non-scenery objects in the room?); furthermore, the sheer number of combinations, and the fact that a player might not stick to their “personality” at all times, creates a number of challenges. But we must note this is exactly the approach taken by Aisle, in which every single input is accepted and justified, which means that the personality of the character can vary wildly depending on the action performed. Aisle is a one-move game, for precisely the reasons we discussed; perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also been performed for live audiences. It would be very interesting to see more IF games that attempts to build a personality for the character which justifies the player’s actions, beyond “the restroom you choose determines your gender” conceit of Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

There are many more aspects of improvisational techniques which could be discussed in the context of IF; the craft and theories underlying improv are well-developed and well-rehearsed. I won’t attempt to deal with aspects of writing scenes and characters, which is a whole other article. However, I heartily recommend every SPAG reader to pick up a copy of Johnstone’s Impro, which is a must-read if you’re interested in telling stories; moreover, it’s interesting to re-read Craft of Adventure after reading this book and to notice the parallels. I believe that looking at improv in the context of interactive fiction could yield a nice framework and a few interesting observations concerning designing, writing and experiencing interactive fiction. Now it’s your turn — what next?

SPAG Verdicts: ParserComp, Spring Thing

Read on for capsule reviews of both major comps this spring.


An Adventurer’s Backyardby lyricasylum

In Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), lunch comes in cans marked “FOOD.” An Adventurer’s Backyard, by lyricasylum, could very easily be served in a box marked “TEXT ADVENTURE.” It’s set in what seems to be an upper middle class home — there’s a fairly extensive backyard, naturally, plus a patio and a balcony — with treasures littered here and there. Some are just sitting in plain sight, while others are in containers we must open. We gather the treasures, and the game ends.

At its best, a game like this, even if it had no ambition beyond a simple treasure hunt, might try to give the player a sense of place or history or wonder, or even just try to generate a laugh. But AAB has been written with an absolute-minimum aesthetic; we’re in a regular house, where everything is described in purely functional terms, in no more than a sentence or two, perhaps with an adjective like “nice” or “tasty.” It feels like the game was assigned to the author as a task to be gotten over with. There are a few implementation issues, too, most of which involve a cat whose collar we need. This becomes a puzzle only because we need to guess the syntax. I had to resort to the ADRIFT debugger to solve it.

This is probably a first effort, and as such, it’s perfectly serviceable and something to be proud of. To the author I would say this: Put more joy into it. Even a simple treasure hunt can be made
entertaining if it’s clearly a labor of love. — Sean M. Shore

Chlorophyll, by Steph Cherrywell

Steph Cherrywell has fast become one of the best new IF writers, and if you want to know why, here’s the very first response I got:

“She’s a lovely shade of jade green, with a cascade of lush foliage tumbling down her back.”

Now that’s a character description. Specifically, it’s of your mother, a plantlike alien scientist (a premise reminiscent of the equally good Coloratura); you’ve accompanied her on a mission to a research base, but after an accident, you’ve got to get things running again — and save her life. Though this is not exactly an underexplored plot, and the puzzles are largely IF comfort food, Cherrywell’s world-building makes it both fascinating and thoroughly lived-in — the base, for instance, is made for photosynthetic life, with sunlocks where airlocks would be, topiary salons and water bars you’re too young for, chlorophyll acne; the detail goes far beyond the cosmetics. The piece gains added gravitas from something that is underexplored in the genre: one of the most genuinely moving mother-daughter relationships I’ve seen in IF, and certainly in parser. — Katherine Morayati

Delphina’s House, by Alice Grove

Child-friendly magical realism is a well-trod parser-IF trope, the medium inherently containing a certain amount of childlike wonder; I’ll always have a soft spot for it. Here, you are Delphina — ahem. You are Delphina: Adventurer to Distant Worlds, Weaver of Stories, and Maker of Mud Pies; and you’re all outta pies, so distant worlds and story-weaving it is. Along the way, Grove touches on some other much-loved IF tropes: twinkly imagery, parallel Alice in Wonderland worlds and objects that travel between them, molten glass and starstuff. — Katherine Morayati

Down, the Serpent and the Sunby Chandler Groover

A competition called ParserComp is naturally designed to attract games that demonstrate the strengths of traditional IF. One entry that fits the bill is Down, the Serpent and the Sun, which takes advantage of the ease with which parser games can establish a sense of place, compared to more choice-based fare.

The place in question is the internal anatomy of a giant feathered serpent god, which devours the player in the first few turns. Starting in its mouth (we’re swallowed whole, thankfully), we can journey down through its digestive system, taking the odd detour into other organs. Elaborate descriptions of gory innards, half-digested corpses and eldritch architecture abound, but the amount of text between each command is relatively restrained and the author’s commitment to the apocalyptic tone sells it – even if at first it might seem a bit much for a game where one way of losing is to emerge too soon from a snake’s butt. The puzzles are pleasantly straightforward (at least to reach one of two similar endings), making this a nice game of exploration through an atypical and grotesque setting. — C. E. J. Pacian

Endless Sands, by Hamish McIntyre

The risk with comps like these is that games will have unexpected synergies. Sometimes it’s funny, as with Introcomp’s Scroll Thief and Soul Thief this comp’s Terminator and Terminator Chaser. Other times… let’s just say it probably didn’t help McIntyre at the start that I played this, with its kidnapping plot and Vampire Queen involvement (“Ugh, what a bitch. You can’t believe you thought she was hot.”) after Sunburn. That is all.

More charitably: Endless Sands is a standard adventure-puzzler (you’ve been stranded by the aforementioned Vampire Queen in a desert you must escape), set in a standard desert atmosphere, with all the expected desert landmarks: cacti hither, oasis yonder, sand, dunes, Pyramid of Doom expanses, boy howdy, that sure is some sand. The tone, meanwhile, is dry as the atmosphere, and varies from effectively sarcastic (“Congratulations! You have successfully murdered one of the few living things around here!”) to over-bro. Solidly implemented — the watch is a nice touch — but perhaps a little parched. — Katherine Morayati

Lockdown, by Richard Otter

Okay, look. Parser games have a certain functional language that’s almost impossible to unwrap from around the code. You can try, but for a comp for smallish games it becomes a Phantom Tollbooth-esque pointless task. That said, there are times you really should try not to use it, for instance, when you find yourself emulating the dry objects-and-locations rundown for sentences like this, among the first a player sees: “A receptionist is lying on the floor.” Or: “You take the silver necklace from the body of Rachel.” And definitely: “She has been shot several times in the chest. She is carrying a notepad.  She is wearing a white shirt and a blue skirt.”

As it turns out, this is somewhat the point. The character is a sociopath (of the somewhat unfortunate variety characterized primarily in terms of DSM diagnoses) and a murderer — the exact character type, in other words, to be so clinical in his narration. However, the writing’s insufficiently polished, the puzzles too cookbook and the actual narration too much of the “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” stripe to give the author the benefit of the doubt. — Katherine Morayati

A Long Drinkby Owen Parks

A noir! In IF, this sets high expectations — about half of them set by Make It Good — but I’m deep enough into working on a noir of my own (quite different than this) that I’ll go with it. Unfortunately, implementation bugs of the sort that’d have been caught on the most cursory copy edit and a little too slavish adherence to the hardboiled monologue style make the drink rather weak. – Katherine Morayati


Oppositely Opalby Buster Hudson

Witches! Competitions (called PotionComp, a broad chuckle of a gag)! Bratty PCs! Many, many references to Wicked! Alliteration! Hint cats! This is the goofy-fun game of ParserComp,  and in a certain mood, there’s nothing you want more than some good goofy fun. While the premise suffers slightly from its proximity in release to that other potion-assembly puzzle game, and while the PC’s voice often veers too far away from “pleasantly bratty” to “annoyingly faux-gonzo” (ED. NOTE: AUTHOR IS RESPONSIBLE FOR BROKEN LEGS / IS PERHAPS A BIG OL’ HYPOCRITE), it’s both a delightful caper and a big ol’ hint-cat hug to one of the deepest-ingrained nostalgias of parser IF enthusiasts: the spell-collecting Enchanter sort of game.

Also, I might not have mentioned: There’s a hint cat. There. Is. A. Hint. Cat. Who provides hints in catlike fashion, and generally improves everything by its presence, as cats do. And for once the author didn’t forget to implement >PET CAT. I swear I’m going to write this in for the next XYZZYs. — Katherine Morayati

Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow, by Boswell Cain

Six Gray Rats describes itself as a “gothic vignette,” which is key; you’re a foppish aristocrat who, as foppish aristocrats do, has taken a stupid bet from a court buddy: spend the night in a haunted Renaissance house, get mad cash florins if you come out alive. Mouldering atmosphere abounds, both in the house itself and the cod-Renaissance memories that the player may explore parallel to the story, and is mostly the point; what puzzles there are are standard IF fare (though, to be fair, equally standard of the haunted-house genre), and what story there is is largely backstory.

The author’s clearly put quite a bit of polish into this piece — take the cover art, or the custom inventory menu, which implements the PC’s many memories as seamlessly as anything I’ve seen. However, a few minutes’ worth of poking reveals unimplemented objects and some unfortunately placed default language (supporter descriptions in Inform can be tough to customize, but even the most cocksure, blase superfluous man would note a certain bit of death in more horrified fashion than “On the armchair are a dusty, desiccated corpse…”); what’s there is great, equal parts evocative and dryly satiric, but whether due to the nature of this genre, which is almost always better more rococo, or the past few years’ worth of juicy parser games, I found myself wanting more. Still, not a bad place to spend a night. —Katherine Morayati

Sunburn, by Caelyn Sandel

Sunburn bills itself as a “social justice horror story.” You’re a woman who turned down a man, Paul, for a second date; unfortunately, that man was the one-in-a-you-never-really-know-how-many who reacts violently, locking you in his office to die — because you’re also a vampire, who will die if exposed to sunlight, and he knows it. But just as readily as Paul can use your vampiric nature to threaten you, you yourself can wield it for your redemption — a standard supernatural trope, and a satisfying one. There’s a neat interconnection to all the pieces: the sort of man who would lock a woman he dated in his office to die would naturally carry a weapon, and the sort of villain who would appear in a vampire story would naturally use weapons like crossbows; and the fact that, supernatural element aside, this sort of  man enacting this of sort of violence is very much non-fictional does raise the stakes of your standard locked-room scenario significantly.

That said, Sunburn suffers a bit from its scale. Its premise is solid and the work starts menacingly enough, an endlessly looping serial killer tape in a room so barren as to be inescapable; but the fact that escape takes roughly two and a half puzzles soon undermines this. It’s plausible that a man like Paul would be so in love with the “brilliance” of his plan that he forgets to take the damn key off the windowsill, less plausible that someone with the resources to pull it off would have such a non-descript office, with such little security. The puzzles are remarkably well-clued, but there could stand to be about twice as many; what setpieces there are — the fire crystal, the reactive paintings — were striking and memorable, but almost seemed like missed opportunities to raise the entire environment to that level. Specifically, there are hints that you need to feed on someone to regain your strength and bust the place up, but besides the final confrontation, you never get a chance. A lot of these missed opportunities have to do with revenge. My first instinct was to throw the audio player into the fire and destroy dude’s voice WITH FLAMES. The default response — “Futile.” — though it perhaps works in a resigned way, was somewhat underwhelming. Similarly, I wanted the final confrontation to last more than one turn — though maybe it’s fitting that this guy and his crossbow go down so quickly.

(A final note, not so much a critique, but a remark on one of the endings: perhaps it’s the timing of the piece, but the idea that an audio recording would convince the police to listen to a member of a group they’re already disposed to hate seems… disproven lately, to say the least. There are hints in the writing that this reading is intentional; yet the standard IF victory banner, “you have brought a murderous, entitled misogynist to justice,” doesn’t seem ironic.) — Katherine Morayati

Terminator Chaser, by Bruno Dias

Easily the most impressive presentation of the comp, in design and in accessibility; the decades of parser innovations that’ve come about since the 1980s are… largely not in evidence in ParserComp, which makes them ever more welcome here. The story itself is a traditional IF-SF blend of base exploration and corporate machinations, indebted to Babel and Delusions and such; though it shares some of the weaknesses of those works — the backstory is engaging but somewhat ham-handed in how it’s doled out, “suddenly a thought strikes you” stuff. Still, the reason this is such a stock premise is because it’s generally effective. — Katherine Morayati

Terminator, by Matt Weiner

(No relation to Terminator Chaser. Hoo boy, is there no relation.)

In a sense, every ParserComp game makes an argument for some aspect of traditional parser, and Terminator‘s element of choice is clear: the elaborate puzzle setpiece. You’re exploring a crashed spaceship (again); the trick is, you don’t explore it yourself. You control it by remotely controlling several scouts and drones, giving them commands from safety. By now you’re either reaching for the nearest pen and paper to map and plan, or reaching to close the tab. And while as a coding exercise this is near-virtuosic, you’re… kind of either inclined toward this or you’re not. I’m also not sure IF is the best medium for this; sometimes with puzzles like this the lack of sight is the point, but after a while one longs for some coded-in, preferably graphical diagram. Hell, the premise doesn’t even have to be a video game; me, I scratch my “command individual units in turn-based fashion IN SPACE! itch about once every six months with Space Alert.

But then, I’m a Story Person. — Katherine Morayati


Doggerland, by A. De Niro

In the early years of parser IF, it was stereotypically obligatory for most games to have a maze. In the early years of hypertext fiction, it was equally obligatory for most stories to be structured as a maze of poorly-explained internal links for the reader to wander through without guidance. It may be time for a theory of hypertext fiction design that rejects the device of making links out of words that have no more than a metaphorical or suggestive association with the target passage. I’m not going to prescribe that it should never be done at all, only that maybe it should be disreputable in the same way twisty-passage mazes are disreputable in parser IF, and authors who do it should feel obligated to preface their work by explaining how they “put a really creative new spin on the idea.”

The reason I bring this up is that the links that determine which branch of Doggerland the player ends up following are labeled pretty obscurely. In fairness, Doggerland is far from the worst offenders among hypertext games with user-unfriendly navigation. It’s not organized as a web that you can get lost in forever, as in old Storyspace hypertexts like Patchwork Girl and Afternoon, but it reminds me of them. Like them, Doggerland feels very Modernist and “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” It’s not actually possible to lawnmow through all the passages of Doggerland in one playthrough (it branches a couple of times and disables the back button), but it still feels like you’re supposed to. The choices you make only affect which parts of the story you read, not the outcomes of the events in the story. There never seems to be any reason to choose not to see any particular part of the story, so the choice-based structure mostly feels like an obstacle. It makes me wonder what Doggerland would look like with a design philosophy of total ease of comprehension, like something Edward Tufte or Chris Ware would endorse, presenting its entire text and the structure of all the links between its ideas at a glance on a single page.

The game uses mouse-over to reveal changes in the text, and as the author’s comment points out, that creates problems for mobile devices. But also, it was irritating for me because I’d get some new text by hovering the mouse arrow over something, then naturally I’d want to try to click the new text, but the new text would disappear before my mouse arrow got there because I’d moved it away from whatever part of the screen was causing the new text to appear. It’s especially a problem that the text you can never reach with the mouse is the same color (red) as the text that’s supposed to be clickable. It was a little like Whack-a-Mole, which wasn’t what I was looking for when I started a game tagged with the genres “poetry autobiography.”

The text itself is good. It’s chilly and surprisingly brief. Spoiler: it’s a personal reflection in which childhood and the past exist by the banks of frozen lakes and seas, which in a future of global warming will all be submerged as warm rains come and melt the ice. It’s selective in its detail but not too opaque. Maybe what bothered me about the presentation was too much reliance on design concepts intended for games that are supposed to conceal things from the player and create challenges. I don’t think Doggerland is trying to do those things at all. — Matt Carey

Mere Anarchy, by Bruno Dias

Mere Anarchy is a vibrant and attractively presented storygame about a revolutionary cell infiltrating the enemy, parcelled up in a magic wrapping. Though short, it is packed with vivid and concrete imagery. Magic and politics is a potent mix. As in The Invisibles or The Illiminatus! Trilogy, esoteric trappings (ritual magic, alchemy, kenning etc.) are matched with radical politics as the player takes on the role of a vengeful anarcho-wizard in a fight against the establishment/magocracy.

The primary form of interaction in Mere Anarchy is the ability to define incidental aspects of the experience. There’s the illusion of gamist trappings with health and sanity stats and optional items, but there doesn’t appear to be any failure states: the options just open up different branches to the same conclusion. Ultimately, the interaction is a means of pacing: player autonomy isn’t exercised through changing the course of the story, but rather by varying what gets presented. Fortunately, the different prose snippets are rich enough to still reward the player for their small choices. — Joey Jones

Ruiness, by Porpentine

With Ruiness, Porpentine is again expanding the design vocabulary of interactive fiction. It’s a powerful idea to use the interface features of Twine to create a limited menu of verbs that players can use to navigate through the whole game, including anticipating what actions are going to be possible in a new scene before they get there. Twine is about limiting the verbs for interacting with IF (not to mention throwing out the indirect objects, adjectives, and adverbs), which can be a great thing because it means it’s easy to make a single-purpose interface that fits the content of a particular story, but that requires hardly any effort for the player to learn. Porpentine is probably the best Twine author at exploiting this potential, creating an innovative new interface with nearly every game she releases.

Like Porpentine’s recent works Skulljhabit and (with Brenda Neotenomie) With Those We Love Alive, Ruiness is structured as a series of locations to be visited over and over at different times. This time, instead of a single strongly-defined protagonist, there’s a character creation feature the player has to use to make a series of adventurers who journey to each of the locations in the game. I appreciated this experiment, but before it was over I felt the gameplay was limiting me to lawnmowing through a clearly defined range of possibilities to see all the text in the game. Even though the game makes the adventurers’ travel sound arduous, there’s no apparent disadvantage to sending each character to every possible location. If you assign every characteristic to only one of your characters (as opposed to creating a new character for every permutation of characteristics, which would be very tedious), almost all the text you see in the game will be unique and there won’t be any need for you read the same passages over and over. Still, you’re not really given the chance to for the sense of discovery that comes from finding non-obvious possibilities in the game system or the sense of agency that comes from story-changing decisions. That is, unless there was a puzzle that went entirely over my head. (I’m aware that something hidden can be found through the text input box, but as far as I can tell it’s really just an Easter egg). The only ending I found was a bold departure from the rest of the story, but it was so enigmatic I didn’t recognize it as a “winning” ending, and I spent a while going back over the same locations vainly searching for another way forward.

The world the player characters explore reminded me of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag, but the vague prose made me feel I was getting a fairly dim glimpse of the world compared to what I’d expect from a fantasy novel. Characters aren’t named, and when they speak, their dialogue isn’t directly quoted. Some passages made me think the history and inhabitants of Ruiness’s world might be deeply consistent and thought-out, but some features like the “Skullipede” and “Lizardhorse” that can be chosen as player characters’ steeds felt more like evocative words thrown together in hopes the player’s imagination would fill in the blanks. Going into detail about the wide world of Ruiness probably would have required several times as many words and far more effort than making the game in its current form, so it may not be fair to call Ruiness flawed just because some of that detail is absent. One of the classic uses of Twine is to make a “game that’s a sketch.” But as Porpentine stretches Twine into a vehicle for more refined interaction design, I hope we’ll see how much more fleshed-out her storytelling can become. — Matt Carey

Sunrise, by Lucky Sun Scribes

Firmly in the visual-novel genre, the choice in this game is between two romantic partners. One interesting feature is that rather than having to choose between equally compelling options, the protagonist must side with either the manipulative creep that they still have confused feelings for, or a kind-hearted but smothering idealist. Some effort is put into making either choice narratively believable, though it’s not entirely clear why she ultimately has to be with either of them.

Sunrise plays to the strengths of the medium, presenting its long internal reflections and non-interactive dialogues with very stylish audio-visual elements; of the music, Abel’s theme is a standout piece. There’s a surprising twist at the start of the second act which breathes life into the story and the expressions in the protagonist’s portrait during this act are utterly delightful. The diesel punk theme, while informing the strong art direction, isn’t particularly developed. While setting deeply informs the reasons the player might choose one partner over the other, the specifics of the kingdom are only lightly sketched. — Joey Jones

Toby’s Nose, by Chandler Groover

Toby’s Nose puts you in the role of Sherlock Holmes’s dog, in one of those familiar mystery-summation scenes, where the detective assembles the suspects in a drawing room and announces who done it. In this case, Holmes still needs assistance from you in identifying the culprit. The game immediately put me in mind of Simon Christiansen’s great spoof of this sort of scene, Death Off the Cuff but Toby’s Nose didn’t work quite as well for me.

Most of the game consists of smelling every noun mentioned in the text to try to pinpoint the suspect. Not just the visible objects — everything. The ABOUT text indicates that you’ll be able to remember important scents in your inventory after you’ve smelled them, but doesn’t make clear that you can remember smells from other locations, from before the start of play.

The author cites Lime Ergot as inspiration, and the influence of that game is clear. Smelling a noun opens up other nouns, which in turn open up others. It’s possible for one noun to open something like a dozen new smell-targets, which might be a bit overwhelming. The vast majority of these will be irrelevant for the mystery, but they are generally very well-written and evocative. In principle, one should be able to lawnmower through all the scents, take careful notes, and at the end, arrive at an inescapable conclusion as to the guilty party. I couldn’t, or at least didn’t. It’s likely a failing on my part that I couldn’t solve the crime from the clues, but ultimately, it didn’t matter. The game allows you to accuse a suspect (via BARK AT) with no evidence whatsoever; indeed, you can do so with the first action after Holmes finishes his opening exposition. If you’re right, job done. If not, well, UNDO and try someone else. I suspect this is intentional on the part of the author, or he’s not too worried about it at any rate. Solving the mystery is in some ways not the point; rather, it’s to take a leisurely olfactory tour of the world of Holmes and other mysteries (referenced in the footnotes). Whether this works for a given player is a matter of taste. — Sean M. Shore

A Trial, by B Minus Seven

At first A Trial appears to be set out with the trappings of an adventure game (cardinal directions, situations that feel like puzzles) and the prose has an artificiality which hints at a writing constraint (though if there was one, it wasn’t obvious). It turns out, after all, to be an open ended explorative piece with embedded stories and extensive and well-attributed excerpts. The individual vignettes vary from the engaging to the obscure, and as interesting as the undertaking was, if there was a deeper structure holding the disparate threads together it wasn’t readily apparent. — Joey Jones