(Top Threes is a recurring interview feature in which we ask authors and other members of the interactive fiction community to talk about their favorite things, in their work and others’.)
Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s Birdland, his second competition entry, swept the 2015 XYZZY Awards with a near-record-setting six awards (second to Matt Wigdahl’s Aotearoa in 2009), including Best Game, Best Writing and Best PC/NPC. (Inspiring the following totally trivial but also totally adorable stat: 2015 is the first year the PC and NPC awards went to both halves of an in-story couple.) Since its release the game’s inspired an official epilogue, near-universal glowing praise and countless fan-works.
In keeping with our tradition of interviewing top XYZZY and competition finishers, we asked Hennessy to share his top three…
SPAG: …works of IF that inspired you?
BPH: 1. Bee by Emily Short. I love it. It’s so wonderful. My favourite from Short’s entire oeuvre probably. It was the first time in the IF world I’d ever really encountered such a well-realized coming-of-age story with such a clearly defined protagonist, and it just totally blew me away. There’s so much about how it’s structured that really resonated with me and that I ended up trying to incorporate into my own work. The way it’s so clearly broken down into scenes, the mechanical cycle that propels the game forward, the sheer size of it. It’s just so good and I really hope a properly working version of it reappears one day.
2. Skulljhabit by Porpentine. It’s actually kinda hard to pick out just one Porpentine game, because pretty much every game of hers did something to expand my ideas of what IF in general and Twine specifically could be. But there was something about Skulljhabit. Something that really grabbed me, some vibe that I often catch myself trying to replicate in some small way, and I’m still not 100% sure what it actually was. Was it the setting? The tone? The opacity of the underlying systems? The deft use of randomization? Perhaps it was just the phrase “Correctly written by the Skull Commissioner”, which will be lodged inside my head until I die.
3. 80 Days is so damn good it makes me weep and I’ve played it like seven times. The fact that something so massive and so engrossing was created by actual living human beings is a source of constant inspiration for me. “A handful of regular nice people created this masterpiece just by working hard and being good,” my brain reminds me. “What’s your excuse?” And I’m like, “uh”
…of your favorite/least favorite YA books of the “truckload” you read while researching Birdland, as you shared earlier?
1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth. This is the one I completely fell in love with. It’s an astoundingly beautiful novel about growing up gay in rural Montana in the 1990s. And it goes places. Whatever heights you imagine are beyond the reach of YA, this book hits them.
2. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner. So the classic queer story cliche, right, is to just kill a character as some kind of tragic punctuation mark. But this book takes death as a starting point and turns it around into a story that’s really precious and sweet. It’s about moving on from loss in an unfair world and that’s an idea that’s much more compelling than “HEY YOUR LIFE IS MISERY AND EVERYTHING IS SAD FOR YOU.”
3. I’m not going to throw shade on any specific least favourites, but I will say that all the worst ones I read made the same cardinal mistake of trying to literally impersonate teenage speech patterns. This is completely impossible and no adult will ever accomplish it.
…scenes or material left out of the final Birdland cut?
1. The campfire scene was originally going to have even more endings than the dozen or so that are in the final game. This included an ending where you explicitly came out of the closet to Bell, and one where you actually kissed her at that point in the game. I think in the scene they both would have been really sweet moments but from a broader story perspective it was still just too soon to give Bridget that moment. The other thing was that those branches were going to be behind tough statistics checks, but it was really jarring to have that mechanic intrude on that scene. It’s supposed to be a quiet moment where you’re letting your guard down, and inserting “ERROR YOU ARE NOT TENACIOUS ENOUGH” just completely kills that vibe entirely.
2. I cut an entire day from the game for pacing reasons. Most of the daytime stuff still wasn’t finished but I did have the seventh dream planned out. It was going to be an Indiana Jones style thing. To this day I mourn the loss of the phrase “The purpose of the archaeologist is to arrest the rise of fascism in Europe?”
3. The original ending was on the last day of camp and it had a great moment where all the counselors are back to normal and they’re all confused that camp is over so soon. Like, “Oh, is it just me or did camp feel exactly five days shorter than normal this year?” “Weird, I was going to say it felt four days shorter.” There was also a nice little goodbye with Mackenzie in there where she tells you to follow her on Instagram because she posts “weird pictures of clouds and normal pictures of weird clouds.”
…scenes or moments in Birdland you’re most proud of?
1. There’s a branch in the beach scene where if your melancholy is high enough you can actually break down and cry a little bit about your whole situation. I like how that branch plays out in general, but my favourite thing about it is that it’s a reward that the player has to earn. Like, the mechanic in this scene is: If you raise your stats and play the game well enough you unlock the ability to cry. I don’t know — there’s something I really like about that as an approach to having emotions in a game.
2. I was very happy with how the detective dream turned out because secretly I viewed it as a kind of do-over for Bell Park, Youth Detective. It actually has a much more complex structure than that original game, and as a result it’s a lot more fun to play around in. Weirdly I think it’s also more satisfying as a mystery story, even though it follows dream logic and doesn’t have a “real” solution.
3. That college student dream has so many amazing moments. The bird plan being derailed by hormones, Bridget’s huge out-of-nowhere rant about what it feels like to have a crush on someone, the gibberish poem that you recite in English class. And possibly my favourite little detail of all, the dream logic stage direction: “(You finish your beer and toss the bottle over your shoulder. It flies off into space.)”
…TOTALLY OFFICIAL pieces of Birdland canon?
Officially I decline to answer this question because all canon is illusory. But unofficially here is a 100% canon summary of Liz’s post-Birdland experience:
2015 LIZ: Huh, why do I get such an overwhelming feeling of joy and excitement when I think of my lesbian friends in a relationship? Guess it’s because I’m a really good ally and absolutely no other reason besides that.
2018 LIZ: oh.
…works that missed out on XYZZY nominations you think voters should check out?
1. Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World by Jedediah Berry. This one slipped under a lot of radars I think since it came out in the middle of IF Comp, but it was a phenomenal piece of sci-fi with lots of interesting and evocative worldbuilding, and some really effective use of music/styling. I loved it. (See also Kevin Snow’s Beneath Floes for a really good Use of Multimedia that didn’t get its due.)
2. Scarlet Sails by Felicity Banks. I actually almost didn’t include this one in here because I was just assuming it had been nominated. But somehow it just missed out, which is a shame. The setting is rich and the adventure is rollicking and the whole thing just captures the feeling of perpetually on the edge of horrible piratey disaster.
3. The ClickVentures. All of them. Clickhole is one of the most consistently funny sites online, and their CYOAs are bizarre and brilliant. My favourite one is probably Can You Survive Seeing Grease on Broadway? (Which is technically a 2016 release, but whatever.)
Also, since we’re on the subject of comedy I’m going to give a bonus 3a shoutout to Bill Belichick Offseason Simulator. Jon Bois is too damn funny for this earth.
…things you want to write IF about someday?
1. 4th-century Chinese history. You ever read about the Sixteen Kingdoms? That shit is unreal.
2. ALL EMOJI GAME. 💯🔣📲
3. Long-term I would kind of like to maybe just go full Degrassi and write some kind of big sweeping seasons-long Canadian teen soap opera. I think that would be a lot of fun. I think that would be the complete and utter end of me as a human being.
…pieces of advice for IF authors?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The author may be being a bit modest here. Further (excellent) advice can be found here, for those interested. Also, aaaaaaaaaaa.]