Category Archives: Issue 63

Issue 63 of SPAG

Issue 63: Letter From the Editor and Call for Submissions

Hello! At long last, Issue 63 of SPAG is upon us, at quite a prolific time IF events-wise — the XYZZY Awards just opened first-round voting, and a new crop of quite good IF works are available via Spring Thing. We’ve been at this IF thing for over a decade; we’ve come a long way from a spate of IF content in October then nothing. May it continue to flourish.

First, a little disclaimer about this issue. As many of you know, I was an entrant in 2015’s comp with Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory2015’s comp also saw an unusual amount of inter-author discussion and collaboration, and I’ve since come to consider many of my fellow entrants friends. Therefore, I’ve made the difficult decision that it would be a conflict of interest for SPAG to review the comp, as has been traditional in previous years. (To my knowledge, this situation has not previously come up for several years, if not a decade.)

That said! Spring Thing 2016 is now upon us, and CoI-free! Therefore, I’m soliciting reviews of Spring Thing entriesBack Garden and otherwise; as always, extra points for succinct and/or diversionary takes.

As always, I’m soliciting pitches as well! There’s no formal theme this time around, but always welcome are:

  • SPAG Specifics on stories of your choice. This issue features a Specifics entry on Slammed! by Paolo Chikiamco and Choice Of Games, but be more  (Issue 64, for instance, will feature an entry on interactive film.) (To be clear, this includes IFcomp entries. Except maybe mine. Unless you really want to.)
  • Interviews and/or reviews of figures in the IF world and/or adjacent to it. I define this broadly; if you’re wondering whether someone counts, it can’t hurt to get in touch!
  • Live coverage, if you live in an area with a significant live interactive fiction presence. This can range from exhibits, to conference coverage, to performances.
  • Essays of any kind. The more unexpected, the better.
  • Basically anything you can think of will be considered!

As always, I welcome pitches by and about women, people of color, LGBT and otherwise underrepresented writers.

Send pitches to There’s no deadline, but I’d love to hear from you! ETA for Issue 64 is late summer to fall.

In addition, SPAG is also seeking an artist! This primarily entails cover art — you can see past examples in back issues — but if you have something else in mind, I’d love to hear from you about this as well.

(Payment for all of the above can be negotiated.)

Thanks for reading as always! I hope you enjoy this issue.

Safeguarding Your IF Voting From Animal Attack

By Ted Casaubon

Last year, sci-fi fans were appalled to discover that the nominations for the 2015 Hugo Awards were dominated by a small but disgruntled and well-organized minority of the voters called the Puppies, who publicized a slate of candidates and voted mostly in lockstep. Almost all the Hugo nominees are unread by me, but the consensus was that the Puppies’ picks were motivated by racial and gender bias (at least in the case of the larger of the two Puppy factions, the Rabid Puppies) as well as a preference for the old-fashioned where plots are concerned. Some important categories didn’t have a single nominee that wasn’t drawn from the Puppy slates, leaving many voters with nothing to mark on their ballots but “No Award.” The sci-fi community quickly began debating voting reforms to stop the Puppies from repeating their victory in 2016.

Does the IF community have anything to learn from the sci-fi fans’ electoral strategizing? Are IF awards like the IF Comp and the XYZZY at risk of a similar raid by canines, alligators, or their evolutionary descendants?

In one sense the IF awards look even more vulnerable than the Hugos. The WorldCon organization requires voters to pay at least a $40 “supporting membership” fee to submit a Hugo ballot, but voting for the Comp and XYZZY awards has been free to anyone in the world whos willing to register on a website. That means it would be easier to coordinate a bloc of voters who otherwise wouldn’t vote at all. For the most part, open-voting IF awards’ obscurity has kept them secure. But history has shown that on the Internet, an angry mob can materialize overnight, and an IF game isn’t necessarily too small a target to attract trolls’ fury. And IF awards have few enough voters that even a small effort may prove statistically significant.

The XYZZYs have a somewhat vaguely-defined rule against voting blocs. Traditionally, entrants are given this guidance: “canvasing for votes is strongly discouraged, either for your own game or on behalf of others. It’s fine to talk about the XYZZYs – but if doing so results in a flood of voters all voting for the same game, those votes will be discounted.” For the 2011 XYZZY awards, Choice of Games reported that they effectively overwhelmed the voting with a single blog post encouraging their fans to vote for an eligible ChoiceScript game that year. (In a further affront to certain segments of the traditional IF community, the game that received the flood of votes was about zombies.) That year the XYZZY organizers threw out every ballot that didn’t vote for at least one game not written in ChoiceScript, and another game was crowned the winner. (To their credit, 2012’s post was scrupulous to avoid even the slightest inkling of a repeat.)

The IF Comp’s corresponding rule on bad-faith voting, adopted before the 2014 Comp, says that every judge who rates a game should make “a good-faith effort to actually play that game as intended” and the organizers “reserve the right to disqualify any ratings that appear to have been submitted under any other lcircumstances.” However, there’s no guarantee that there’ll always be a way to distinguish bloc voters’ ballots from everybody else’s, or any way to reconstruct what the result of an election would have been if an undesired “flood” of voters hadn’t happened. (This makes everything murky; last year’s comp saw rumblings of the fact, or perhaps coincidence, that every Twine game in the 2015 comp, without exception, received two 1/10 votes.)

I wish to apply a very, very light touch to this sort of negative enforcement,” IF Comp organizer Jason McIntosh wrote. “One of the best aspects of the IFComp is the annual array of very thoughtful reviews that all sorts of people write and publish. Some of these have, in recent years, begun to appear in high-profile commercial media. I would certainly not wish to conflate audience enthusiasm — resulting, I hope, in audience growth — with Sad/Rabid Puppies-style, bad-faith bloc voting!”

There is a limited release of post-Comp voting stats that allow fans to speculate about whether there was any unfair pattern in the ballots. McIntosh also pointed to the longstanding requirement for judges to rate at least five games as an important safeguard against “thoughtless ‘drive-by’ votes, or even well-intentioned votes where a person read a high-profile glowing review of a game, played it, and then did nothing else — which might prove imbalancing to the comp overall.”

One unique feature of the XYZZYs seems to give them an advantage over the Hugos in diluting voting slates: the XYZZY website lets each voter nominate only a single work per category in the nominating round. That means it wouldn’t be possible for a bunch of prospective ballot-stuffers to copy-paste a slate of games from a blog and turn that same slate into the entire second round list of nominees. It would at least demand a certain minimum amount of logistical effort for the bloc voters to coordinate their votes to make sure each entry on their slate scored over the threshold.

A proposal that’s been thrown around for Hugo voting is to allow a limited number of anti-votes in the nominating round. The IF Comp essentially has anti-votes already, because you can assign games you don’t like a “1.” For the XYZZYs (like the Hugos), there’s such a long tail of eligible but unworthy works each year that it wouldn’t be feasible to anti-vote for all of them. So, the only value in allowing anti-votes would be as failsafe against voting slates: when you hear that some person you don’t like has created a slate, you anti-vote for everything on it. On the downside, anti-votes would create a new weapon for trolls to wage personal vendettas and target quality works for political reasons, and the XYZZYs would have to join the Comp in awarding an annual Golden Banana of Discord.

A more interesting alternative was proposed in a discussion about the Hugos on Quora. The idea was to use “reweighted approval voting” in the nominating round, which would mean that after the candidate with the most nominating votes was placed on the nominee list, an elector who voted for that candidate would get only half a vote for deciding the second entry on the nominee list. If the elector voted for both of the first two candidates who made in on the nominee list, then the elector would get only a quarter of a vote for deciding the third nominee, and so on. Reweighted approval voting has the benefit of diluting coordinated voting blocs, but it also encourages tactical voting. If you’re confident your preferred candidate is the front-runner, you have a disincentive to vote for that candidate, because by doing so you dilute the votes that you could have used to decide who became the second nominee, the third, and so on.

Then there was the long discussion on Making Light that ended with another proposal inspired by the idea of diluting ballots that have votes for more than one front-runner. It uses a “single divisible vote with least popular elimination” system that asksgood-faith voters to divide up their vote among (ideally long) lists of potential nominees, and then whittles away the list of finalists by removing the least popular ones first and reassigning their share of the vote to the other candidates that shared the same ballots with them. In theory, the good-faith electors’ voting power will end up concentrated behind only the most popular entries on their longlists, while the bloc’s voting power will remain diluted if all the entries on their voting slate are about equally popular. Still, the good-faith voters may face a dilemma because if they nominate too many works, they’ll have no way to express a preference between them, and works with broad but lukewarm support might become the finalists.

The voting systems described above are all intended to ensure that a minority bloc doesn’t thwart the will of the majority. But the reality is that a majority voting bloc could be just as harmful to the integrity of an IF award, if it was the result of a raid on the polls from outside the community. The only real way to prevent that would be to limit who gets to vote. A time-tested way to keep out undesirables is to use Academy-style voting like the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys, or a critics’ award like the Golden Globes. But it’s not easy to keep track of the membership of an academy, especially when the award organization is a few volunteers working for free. An IF academy would present particular problems because there’s no clear definition ofwhich works count as “IF,” and it’s almost certain that technological changes are going to expand the world of IF in unexpected directions. The enthusiastic ChoiceScript supporters were seen as invaders by the IF community in the 2011 XYZZYs, but with Creatures Such as We taking second place in the 2014 Comp and Scarlet Sails taking 7th in 2015, they probably wouldn’t be considered such outsiders today. Without knowing which works are IF, it’s hard to say whos a part of the IF community, and still harder to form an electorate that includes all of those people while keeping others out. No electoral system can be perfect, and the more disagreement there is about whose interests the system should serve, the more challenging it’ll be to craft rules that make the outcome feel legitimate to everybody.

SPAG Specifics: Paolo Chikiamco’s “Slammed!”

By Hugo Labrande

I am a really, really big wrestling fan. When I was 3 I loved the Bushwhackers (… yeah) and the Undertaker; I rediscovered wrestling 15 years later (still love the Undertaker) and was hooked for a long time. It’ll come to no surprise to you, then, that I think Slammed! is a really good game – but even if you don’t like wrestling or think it’s stupid, you should give it a shot: it is long, exciting and well-written.

In Slammed!, you play as a wrestler, learning the ropes at an independent federation and hoping to be noticed by the big federation, where a former friend is having some success. There are about four main love interests, two of whom are obvious and the others less so. All these are nicely integrated with the story, which is laudable. The game branches at the end, where you have three potential outcomes; my first playthrough took me about four hours, which is long for CoG.

Otherwise, Slammed! is mostly linear, with lots of immovable parts; the plot is exciting, but even the bad events are largely unavoidable, and what choices and stat changes exist are used to color your playthrough or reach optional side-quests or achievements. One coup, though, is how the game brings narrative tension to matches. After all, wrestling is “fake,” in the sense that the outcomes are predetermined and also the matches themselves to different degrees. If the game replicated this, the only choice you’d have in the ring is whether you deviate from the script, which would be boring (and would get you fired). To get around this, the game uses the concept of “shoot wrestling”, which is a real wrestling phenomenon: the matches become more like fights, albeit ones that still use wrestling moves and ensure nobody gets hurt too much. This makes fight scenes actually unpredictable — there are twists you don’t see coming — adds tension and suspense, and makes you able to lose.

All the scenes of Slammed are short, and all the moments feel exciting. There’s also a nice variety of normal scenes, flashbacks within interviews (with reflective choice points that build your character); but you also have blog posts from a blogger (Internet fans are a huge force in today’s wrestling, and the tone is well-emulated) and scenes described via the show’s “screenplay”, which both make the moment feel big (“the masked man stares down from the top of the steel cage”) and are nice thematically (wrestling is acting, and you get the perspective of the audience). Slammed is even complete with a promo video that hypes your final match, which is epic and feels exactly like WWE promo videos. In fact,, everything in the game feels exactly like wrestling. The writing does a good job at introducing wrestling terminology, though it gets a bit carried away in the end, where terms like “crucifix powerbomb” are used without having been fully explained. But the worst that can happen is that you have a harder time visualizing the moves: you will not hopelessly drown in lingo in this game. There are a few throwaway references, like names or achievements (“bah gawd!”), or stuff that is mentioned in passing (“dangerous workplace behavior”); it’s not shoving it down your throat, but if you’re in the know, you’ll notice and smile. The in-ring names of the wrestlers all sound convincing, and some clearly riff off real-life wrestlers; the in-ring personas are very plausible (the Angels, the Lawmakers, Harley and Quinn), as well as the storylines in which they are involved, which (just like in wrestling) can be pretty ridiculous. The situations are inspired by real events (“sell like it’s 2005”) including references to reality TV, a road the WWE has been going down for the last few years. And nothing feels like a copy-and-paste job; rather, you the author creates an convincing alternate world that sometimes (like with the character of Madison Rio) I wished was real.

I have of course a few criticisms – or rather, letdowns. First of all, the fact that the game is extremely linear means it is focused on a single perspective, which is that mainstream American wrestling (to be clearer, the WWE) is the best, and the ultimate goal is to be #1 there. Now, the WWE might be the place to be for a lot of wrestlers – and indeed, in the last couple years a lot of successful independent wrestlers have signed there. But this ignores the different cultures of wrestling, which constantly influence each other and enable wrestling to reinvent itself. For instance, there’s barely a mention of Japanese wrestling, which is just as excellent, and where lots of wrestlers (including famous North American ones) trained and had great careers before coming back to North America. Including branches that highlight those possibilities in the game might have made it richer, and made for a first half that is much less linear.

The other major letdown that I have is about how the game reacts when you play as a woman, as is Choice Of Games’ house style.Playing as a female wrestler will give you the same opportunities and the same choices, except a particular one near the end, which doesn’t show up for male wrestlers. Otherwise, the only difference is the pronouns, and a misogynist character’s attitude towards you — that’s it. As a fun escapist game, a power fantasy, this is in a sense awesome – it is just as easy to rise to the top of the company and kick the (male) champion’s ass as a woman. On the other hand, doing this feels like it’s dodging a major issue, which is that wrestling (and especially mainstream wrestling) has a terrible attitude towards women. Women in wrestling are largely used for titillation, as sex objects or objects for other men to fight over, sometimes hired purely on looks with minimal wrestling training, are given exploitative matches and characters that range from the cold bitch to the psycho, and contend with certain male wrestlers’ attitudes on stage and backstage. There are a lot of great female wrestlers who are legitimately amazing (SHIMMER, Manami Toyota, Awesome Kong, Phoenix, Stratus, etc.), and they do get some amount of recognition — but nevertheless, there is a glass ceiling. So, when the worst thing that happens to you as a female wrestler is that one character, clearly written as an asshole, says women are weak or can’t count but he’ll still give you a chance, that’s a gross simplification. And when the game explains, in one paragraph, that “the company’s shows were misogynistic once, for two months, but they thought it was bad and they stopped”, when your game is otherwise so on-the-nose, you’re obviously refusing to engage with the problem.

It would be hard to try to talk about all that in the game – or worse, to put all those obstacles on the female route and none on the male route (although that would for sure make for interesting commentary). But if you refuse to talk about it, you avoid some interesting questions. How do you become a female wrestler? How do you train? Who agrees to put you in their show? What’s your in-ring persona like? What storylines can you create? Do you only fight women? How do you break the glass ceiling in a system dominated by men determined to use you as eye candy? Do you get breast implants or do you insist they take you seriously because you sure can wrestle? Or both? Of course, this is more difficult to design, because the male and the female routes become quite different; and it involves dealing with social representations one might not have lived through. But what’s the alternative? I’m worried that it means that, ultimately, using the argument “you can play as whoever you want” when it doesn’t actually make any difference, feels either like a cheap pronoun-substitution trick or like escapism (“you can have the same privilege as straight white cis males! Maybe a few assholes won’t like you but you can still win as easily!”). It’s a tough call, and they went for what appears to be the safe option, which I think is a shame.

For what it’s worth, the game is quite transparently written as escapism – you become the biggest wrestler, you win it all, and the other problems don’t exist (and there are so many in wrestling: your body breaking down, painkiller addiction, alcoholism and other addictions to be able to cope, repeated concussions, loneliness and relationship rifts caused by being on the road 300 days a year, getting old and having to retire away from the spotlight, or being unable to do so, etc.). For other CoG games, it’s not a big deal; but for wrestling, where the problems are painfully apparent and have broken into the mainstream (Hogan steroids scandals, Benoit killings, Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and even institutionalized racism and sexism), leaving them out completely didn’t really feel right to me. Nevertheless, Slammed! succeeds at its main goal, which is to be an awesome game about wrestling: the author is clearly very familiar with the wrestling world, and manages to reproduce this in a world and a story that feel true.

You Are An Online Clickbait Satirist. Can You Hack It In The IF World?

By Katherine Morayati

It’s hard to out-wacky a field whose acclaimed titles include The Gostak, HIGH END CUSTOMIZABLE SAUNA EXPERIENCE and Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me and whose recent works include Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, The Epic Ass-Kicking Quest For Awesome Glory and GROWBOTICS, but it’s been done in quality and quantity by one author, or rather house: ClickHole, which released a whopping 20 games eligible for XYZZY Awards in 2015 via its ClickVentures vertical. (IF works are eligible if they are complete, publicly available and listed on IFDB.) They’re not the first comedy writers to attempt IF – others include Rob Dubbin, Robb Sherwin, and even people not named Rob – but they are ,lately, the most prolific.

The XYZZY eligibility list, of course, collapses nicely to a dozen or so stories when finalists are announced, but it’s easy to imagine at least one of these in the running. ClickHole produces one game per week – a breakneck pace by IF standards. Like ClickHole’s more traditional writing, they range from reflexively meta (Get The Whole Online Experience By Trying Our Internet Simulator) to ripped-from-realtime (You’re A Germ! Can You Make Bruce Springsteen Sick Enough To Cancel A Concert?) to self-conscious weird Twitter horror (The Mysterious Shadows Of Skullshadow Island), but always geared toward mass appeal. Only their presentation – mobile-interface stylings on dialogue options, achievements to unlock – gives them away as non-hobbyist works. And as one would (should?) expect from a professional media outlet, they are well-written, immaculately polished and gussied up with all the design resources of the modern digital studio – and all the priorities.

Everything on ClickHole walks a fine line: ruthlessly satirizing online clickbait while itself serving as viable clickbait. The Onion, after all, is a major publishing entity that also produces sponsored content – generally with a sheepish dismissal of the thing it has deigned to publish – and comprises an in-house advertising agency whose clients include EA, Hilton and Dove. (Currently, ClickVentures run alongside sponsored posts for Totino’s Pizza Rolls.) Clickhole may target a snarkier-wiser audience than Buzzfeed, but their core goal is the same: to produce #content at #scalable #volume, to drive shares, clicks, engagement and everything else you’d hear on the biz side of any other digital outlet, and to grow an 18-34 audience.

The process of growing that audience can be politely described as flailing upon the early Web and rehauling anything cool or gimmicky you touch. The resurrection of the BBS-staple GIF has been well documented to the point where it’s possible to forget that “animated GIF” once connoted Geocities. The Facebook-courting part of the Internet is aglow with what are basically Quizilla quizzes – whether user-generated (read: free) like the first ones, or professionally designed for maximum lead generation and data collection. And yes, among all these were choose-your-own –adventure games – when I was growing up, my main outlet was the thousands-strong archive of collaborative stories on the since-rebranded, but there were others. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal candidate for clickyfication than CYOA, if you think like a suit – it’s a genre whose association among the masses is kitschy ‘80s nostalgia, which calls for lengthy, attentive engagement from audiences, and that is designed to produce large amounts of clicks.

And indeed, this is exactly how ClickVenture was founded. The genre “descends from a format, the slideshow, that’s a pretty useless format that I think almost everyone finds frustrating,” ClickHole lead writer Jamie Brew told Wired. “It’s typically used online to delay the presentation of information that any normal person would want immediately. We basically said, what can we do to make these enjoyable?” This repurposing isn’t unheard of – Twine, for instance, grew out of the more generalized wiki framework TiddlyWiki, and Choice Of Games grew out of the code and principles of the old C64 game Alter Ego. And like most authoring systems, ClickHole found itself grappling with the same problems IF designers have for decades. Slideshows, after all, have no world model and very little ability to affect variables behind the scenes, restricting ClickHole (at least for the moment) to simple lightly branching narrative. You can watch it happen in real time, almost. Early work The Mysterious Shadows flirts with parser construction – one branch prompts you to go NORTH or SOUTH, capitalized as such – before abandoning it for a more typical deadly gauntlet; later works are often punctuated solely by the little emotional quips (“capiche? Capiche”) popularized in Twine by Porpentine and others.

Indeed, whether by coincidence, by constraint (there are only so many lightly branching concepts, even for the most creative among us) or by being suffused in the same influences – writer Jamie Brew is a fan of Michael Lutz, and comedy writers and Twine designers share more than a few Twitter followers – a lot of the ClickHole adventures come off as alternate-universe takes on the hypertext canon. Can You Find The Mole In This Spy Organization? is a mildly more sedate version of the comedy half of SPY INTRIGUE. Can You Keep Up a Conversation with Your Dad? is like a goofy, atopical take on works like Conversations With My Mother or Coming Out Simulator.Games like You’re A Grocery much Store Delivery Boy. Can You Deliver A Pound Of Ground Beef To The Astronauts On The International Space Station? parody the deliberate gender-neutral PCs (and subsequently maximized audience? Like everything ClickHole, it’s hard to say) of both commercial IF and more social-justice oriented hobbyist works. Build Your Ideal Boyfriend  is a toy like the IF-adjacent game Boyfriend Maker. The list goes on, and becomes more sophisticated: a comedy machine becoming ever more efficient.

It’s not a perfect machine, mind. At their most derivative, ClickVentures come off as endless lightly spun versions of You’re an X, Can You Y? or, worse, the exact sort of tedious, stingily dispensed paragraphs  Each ClickVenture is the work of one author, but ClickHole’s writing team is overwhelmingly male – much unlike the current slate of IF authors – and entirely in-house; perhaps as a result, certain entries read like Oglaf-via-fratire. And like everything clickbait or clickbait-satire, ClickVentures are subject to online publishing whims and trends; for every successful quiz concept there’s an unsuccessful rubbable GIF. But unlike the work of countless, best-unnamed corporations-come-lately who dabbled in IF as a fun new gimmick, ClickVentures actually function as solid, enjoyable diversions. As Wired describes it, we’re all “watching comedy writers become unintentional game designers.” Lots of us can say the same.