Spring Thing 2022: Manifest No

Spring Thing 2022 has been over for a little while now. I said I’d post about all six of the Back Garden submissions, and I’ve only done five. That’s because I wanted to actually get all the way through the last of them, Manifest No, before commenting on it. But I think I have to admit at this point that it simply isn’t going to happen. It’s tough to get through. Much of the text is simply portentious and agonized word salad like:

Steerless plunging scratching the scoffing subterranean enforcement seal with fingernails to scrawl illiterate runes, wept named rebellion, in the wheedling yaw submission to the infinite. Encaged horror broke free in the recognition and beat my bones like war drums. Under the ceiling’s concavity hidden doctrines groaned themselves buttresses, spectral stems extending from what had once been sequestered; we ignore what we know until our touch knows. Acidic repetition, I cried out! Who had I been to be a cracked mirror? Where might I pray, where were the ashen hills that called out in pious grime?

It goes on in that vein for a whopping twenty-seven chapters. What makes it especially fatiguing is that it isn’t entirely meaningless. There’s a story in there, but it takes some effort to extract. There’s a setting involving a dock and a bar that exist in some relationship to a Tower (always capitalized). There’s a set of miserable characters who argue and toss insults back and forth and sometimes kill each other, but aren’t really distinguishable unless you take careful notes — sometimes the narrative viewpoint switches from one character to another between chapters and it isn’t clear at first that this has happened. At one point, a sea-captain recruits a crew for an expedition to find a legendary lost Tower, but I have no idea if the narration after that follows the expedition or not. Sometimes it’s unclear if a passage was meant literally or metaphorically.

I’d be inclined to think that the author is underestimating the difficulty of their text, has internalized their own worldbuilding and style so much that they’ve lost sight of how it looks to others less familiar with their thought processes, as so often happens… except that the blurb and disclaimers at the beginning suggest that the difficulty of understanding is deliberate, part of an effect that the author values for its own sake. And why shouldn’t the text require effort? Isn’t this part of what we like about IF, that it involves us in more than just passive reading? I’m sure there’s an audience that will appreciate this work, even if it doesn’t include me, and I hope it finds them.

One note on the interactivity: Pages are fairly long, which is how I like them, and each will have links on a few random words. Sometimes following a link will take you to a page with some obvious connection to that word, but just as often there will be no apparent connection at all; the choices all advance the story, but not in a way that’s under the first-time reader’s deliberate control. So there’s no meaningful sense of agency in the choices. Figuring out the story from the murky prose is the only source of agency.

Spring Thing 2022: The Wolf and Wheel

Here we have a story about stories — a sort of cross between Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and The Lathe of Heaven in a Russian-ish setting and Visual Novel format. (I’ve always found the VN presentation somewhat bothersome, but it’s a step up from Twine imitating VN presentation, in that you can click-to-advance anywhere on the screen.) You play as a server at an inn during a time of monsters and bizarre prodigies. People come in for a drink and tell you stories of the latest folkloric wonders they’ve seen, and these stories are interactive, offering one or three choices that affect how they end. The binding conceit, though, is that the interactivity is something the player character is doing. You enter a sort of trance while listening, and at the end, you might find that the storyteller has been altered by the choices you just made for them in their past.

The implications are disturbing, and the changes you make are not appreciated by certain magical creatures of the forest who can tell what you’re doing, and who come by in the night to complain and threaten you. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it. Even if you want to leave a story unaltered, you have no way of knowing what choices will do that. There’s some interlinking of the stories — definitely some repeated motifs, and possibly some decisions that affect later stories as well. In one, I had an argument with a werewolf about moral philosophy; in a later one, men are killed by a werewolf, possibly as a result of what I said. The protagonist’s strange power of interacting with fiction is thus portrayed as a curse — a peculiar perspective to put before interactive fiction enthusiasts!

One thing I really appreciate: Characters will ask after you, and, while you have the option of lying or deflecting, you also have the option of just telling them everything. Too many stories where the protagonist has some weird experience or develops a strange power have them simply decide to keep it a secret for no good reason. I’m glad this game didn’t force me down that path, particularly as the preponderance of weird experiences in the setting makes any secrecy seem a little pointless. Still, clamming up is offered as an option, and the fact that it was offered made me all the happier to be able to reject it.

There’s one element of the premise that I don’t think was handled well: in addition to everything else, the sun is gone and no one knows why. The problem with this is that it’s presented obliquely enough that it didn’t actually register for me until the end of the first chapter. There’s a line early on about “before the sun stopped making its way across the sky”, but that just made me think “before sunset”. There’s a mention of going to the inn in darkness every day, but that just made me think that I have an early-morning shift. And then it just stops being relevant for a long time. I might think it’s a deliberate effect, that the player is meant to spend the first day without full knowledge of conditions, if it weren’t for the blurb, which I hadn’t read before playing, stating outright that it takes place “two weeks after the sun stopped rising”.

The blurb also tells me that this is a demo for a larger game, in which you’re out in the cold having strange encounters directly, and that the whole storytelling conceit was just a way to wrap up a bunch of unrelated storylets for the demo. This surprises me. Despite being basically disjointed, it seemed too cohesive for that.

Spring Thing 2022: Confessing to a Witch

I’m hesitant to write anything about this at all. It’s another demo for a work in progress, but it’s essentially a non-interactive demo. Just a sequence of pages, each with two or three sentences, a picture (mostly lush, pastoral photographs), and a single link to the next page. You get to the point where your quest begins, rescuing a young country witch who you have a crush on from some unknown danger, and that’s the end of the demo. It’s a teaser trailer, not so much a game as an advertisement for one. And I can’t begrudge its presence here — this sort of thing is what the Back Garden is for! But when I set out to post about everything in the Back Garden, it was with the intention of reviewing games, not ads.

But let’s at least talk a little about what the ad promises. The writing is amiable and, when it isn’t focused on the nervousness of young love, has that the-author-really-wants-to-live-in-this-world tone you see in a lot of fanfic. The photographic illustrations are very pleasant, at least when they’re outdoors, but a scene of a ransacked room has an unnatural collage-like aspect, and the interior views of the witch’s rustic thatched cottage clearly don’t fit inside the exterior — although that’s probably just magic at work. The overall feel reminds me a lot of the narrative component of hidden object games.

Spring Thing 2022: Phenomena

The blurb calls this an “interactive poem”, and I totally agree with that categorization. It consists of seven stanzas, each seven lines long, where each line has seven variations for the reader to choose from, flipping through possible combinations until you’ve formed something you’re satisfied with. The acknowledgements cite Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems as a formal inspiration, although I suspect the UI changes the experience somewhat. Phenomena is in Twine/Sugar Cube, and uses “cycling choices”, changing lines when you click on them, which means the options for each line are revealed in a specific order. Sometimes a line will be an obvious continuation of a previous-seen alternative, or a comment on it, which doesn’t quite fit into the notion that the poem is just the finished product of your choices. It’s more like the poem flows in two dimensions. (Perhaps it aims at three, what with the three layers of sevens, but two is my experience of it.)

Extracting meaning from such a work requires effort — enough effort that I’d probably resent it in a more demanding context, like the Comp. It starts off with a close encounter with a flying saucer, then spins off into tangents obliquely describing different ways of relating to UFOs: as omens and portents, as strangers to our world, as something apocalyptic and transforming. One stanza is just a disjointed series of individual words, and might not have any real meaning beyond that feeling of fragmentation. The final stanza, titled “I GUESS THIS WAS NEVER REALLY ABOUT UFOS, HAHA”, digs into the author’s intentions a bit, explicitly connecting it all to death and to “everything the night is a metaphor for”, but still keeps up the scattering of vague but portentious imagery. It makes me wonder if this is simply an inevitable product of the chosen format.

Spring Thing 2022: A D R I F T

I said before that the Back Garden is for experimental stuff, but it’s also explicitly for works in progress — basically, if the author feels that it shouldn’t be competing in the Main Festival, for whatever reason, it goes here. ADRIFT is in the latter category. The ending brings the initial crisis to a more-or-less satisfying resolution, but it’s very short, and the author has indicated a desire to expand it in a post-festival release.

That initial crisis: You’re a Soviet cosmonaut and you’ve come untethered from your spacecraft. Getting back to safety involves some light parser-based puzzle-solving with an apparent time limit imposed by your oxygen level. A little experimentation shows that the time limit is fake, that a warning about 15 minutes remaining is the last event, but it uses the warnings to create a little tension in a sequence where you have to excruciatingly wait for an object to drift within reach. (After which, in accordance with the same design philosophy, it never drifts out of reach.) This is the work of a first-time author, and I find it pleasing that the utility of this kind of fakery is already within their grasp.

The story is accompanied by pictures, and the pictures are stylistically 1980s-era in a way that I strangely haven’t seen imitated elsewhere. It’s not the artful, well-chosen pixel art popular in indie game nostalgia. It’s photographs color-reduced to the point of stylization so they can be forced into a palette they’re not suited for. I can only hope that people recognize what it’s going for: the look of pictures downloaded from pre-web BBSes.

My one suggestion to the author is to add more synonyms and alternate commands. Get some first-time players to send you transcripts of their sessions to see what people are trying that should work but doesn’t.

Spring Thing 2022: 5e Arena

This is essentially a proof-of-concept for a somewhat novel approach to computerizing a solo Dungeons & Dragons adventure. The player is expected to provide their own character, between levels 1 and 4. (Options for characters up to level 7 are purportedly going to be added in later versions.) The player is also expected to come furnished with an understanding of the rules of 5th edition D&D: much of the game is executed by hand, and, although the game gives you some assistance in tracking positions and HP, most of the relevant state is external to the game, in the player’s head.

In that regard, it has much in common with certain gamebooks I’ve seen, some of them specifically D&D-based. Occasionally such books get ported to computers, and it’s always an open question just how much the computer will automate and how much will be executed by the player. Does the computer roll dice for you? Make combat decisions for enemies? The guiding principle behind 5e Arena is to make the player do anything that the player, rather than the DM, would do in a tabletop D&D session. Thus, you roll the dice for your own attacks and skill checks, but the enemy’s attacks are automated. But even the automated rolls are interpreted by the player. You decide whether it hit. Just like a solo adventure in print, it all runs on the honor system, and you can just decide to tell it that you’ve won (or lost) a fight if you want. (The whole thing is even written in Twine Harlowe, which means there’s a “go back” button on each page. The author is clearly not concerned about cheating.) Furthermore, it trusts you to handle enemy movement, which would normally be done by the DM — after all, for all it knows, you might be casting spells that affect it. It’s placing no limits on what you can do. It even incorporates rules for rolling dice to simulate DM judgment about questionable effects.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, yes, if you want to handle the full range of possible player actions, including improvised ones, there’s only so much structure you can put into the system. But I’m not entirely convinced that this system hits the best compromise between structure and freedom. Perhaps it would be better if the system provided overridable defaults for NPC movement — or maybe that would just complicate the UI to no good purpose. It’s positioned as a solo D&D adventure, after all, not as a CRPG.

The story is basically just “Challenge a sequence of three opponents in gladiatorial combat”, with a choice of different levels of enemies. I played through honestly with a level 2 character that I just happened to have been playing recently with my regular D&D group, who lost in round 3 due to his slow speed and lack of ranged attacks, then simply browsed the rest of the scenarios. It actually stretches the minimal plot pretty far, throwing in twists like “Your opponent isn’t what it seems” and “Someone offers you money to take a dive, but you have to make Performance checks to sell it”. There’s enough material around the edges of the barely-a-combat-system to make it clear that the format would be viable for a fuller adventure.

Spring Thing 2022

This year marks the 20th year of the Spring Thing, a sister event to the annual IF Comp. It was conceived as a way of relaxing the hold that the Comp had over the IF community, relieving the dry spell after the Comp, giving people a place to release games that don’t fit into its strictures, and with less of an emphasis on competition — these days, it’s styled as a “festival” rather than a Comp. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Spring Thing event in the past, even though it’s been the venue for really good stuff. Let’s end that now!

But also, I don’t want to make a large commitment of this. Although the Spring Thing has always been smaller than the Comp, both have ballooned to unwieldy proportions over time — and that’s actually more of a problem for the Spring Thing, because the Comp’s rules encourage short games, and the Spring Thing’s rejection of that was one of the reasons for its founding. The current Spring Thing, which has been underway for two weeks already, has 47 entries, 12 of them identified by their authors as “full-length”. Fortunately, we can narrow things down with the event’s divisions. 41 of these works were placed by their authors in the “Main Festival” division, and six in the “Back Garden”, which is intended for more experimental works. Since the experimental works are the ones I tend to find most interesting, my current intention is to only cover just the Back Garden here.

Further Thoughts on Narrative in Dark Souls

I said earlier that Dark Souls doesn’t have story, it has lore. That’s not quite true, it turns out. In the early-to-mid part of the game, you get a lot of lore as flavor text on items, and it really seems like that’s all it is, just flavor, safely ignored. But once you unlock the game’s final layers, two things happen: you finally get an explanation of what your ultimate goal is, and you start directly encountering the legendary beings you’ve seen referenced over and over, usually to fight them. Story and lore merge, as what you’ve picked up incidentally about these characters establishes the weight and stakes of these encounters.

It’s a peculiar way to convey story information ambiently without exposition dumps, reminiscent of environmental storytelling. I’m trying to think of other games that do something similar, and the best I can come up with is Magic: the Gathering, where you can see numerous flavor-text references to a Planeswalker character before encountering the card for the character itself. That’s not quite the same, though, because M:tG really does just have lore without narrative.

The downside is that, as you may have gathered from my posts, it really does make it easy to overlook what story is there. I’ve been trained by so many other games that lore is inconsequential, a sort of optional extra of only tangential relevance to what I’m actually doing, and it takes a very long time before Dark Souls does anything to contradict that assumption. There’s got to be a better compromise.

Dark Souls: Full Circle

The story of Dark Souls is at root a solar one, although this isn’t obvious at first. The lore, revealed mainly through item descriptions, heavily involves one Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, a god who fought dragons and demons in ages past to create and sustain the Age of Fire. His time is nearing an end, which is probably why the whole world seems so run-down. The player’s assigned task is to unlock the way to his sanctum, the Kiln of the First Flame, a barren place filled with ashes, to defeat him and take his place, becoming the new fire of the world. Getting to that point, proving yourself a worthy successor, involves a whole lot of descending into darkness to symbolically pass through the abyss under the earth, meeting challenges on the way. There’s even an area specifically called The Abyss, a place of total featureless darkness containing nothing but screaming, anguished monsters.

Even the diegetic die-and-respawn cycle fits into this, if you think about it. The whole idea of returning from death is a big part of myths both solar and seasonal, and so it’s not swept under the rug like in most games, but made into the focus of the story. So I suppose it’s also fitting that the game just sweeps you directly into New Game+ at the end, starting a new iteration of the eternal cycle. It feels anticlimactic, though. After all that effort, you’re just told to do it all again, with no congratulations, no celebration, no credits. But then, this isn’t a celebratory, congratulatory story. It’s a story of decay and renewal, but with a strong emphasis on the decay. The great monsters you defeat are the previous age’s heroes, turned sour by the centuries, so even in the end, there’s still an implication that the same fate awaits you. “Hollowing” at a larger scale.

And with that, I think I’m done. There are still zones I haven’t visited, whose names I only know from the wikis, even an entire DLC expansion that I haven’t touched. But I find myself less motivated to pursue them now that I know that the designers never intended satisfaction. I’m told that the sequels come to emphasize the wrong elements, too — that Dark Souls had a (mostly undeserved) reputation for brutally punishing difficulty, so they leaned into that more. So I might give those a miss, too. But Elden Ring is being touted as a more accessible version, so maybe I’ll give it a try in ten years.

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Dark Souls: The Dragon

The first real challenge area in Dark Souls is called the Undead Burg. It’s a series of buildings and towers and battlements that are all part of a large castle on a bunch of cliffs. At its end is a wide stone bridge leading to a massive gate leading out to the next area. That bridge is guarded by a dragon.

The dragon is red and spiky, and it breathes intense blasts of fire down the bridge. The closer you get to the dragon, the more damage you take from the fire, until it’s completely unsurvivable. This is one of those bosses that you’re not meant to actually fight on first encountering it. Halfway along the bridge there’s a stair down, which lets you clamber along the bridge’s supports until you find a way up, on the other side of the gate. (The gate cannot be opened from the outside, which makes perfect sense — it’s part of the defensive structures for a castle!) You can still see the dragon from the other side. You can climb up a tower nearby and look down and fire arrows at it, for all the good it does — they do damage, but only a little, and you definitely don’t have the resources to buy enough arrows to kill it at that point. No, you’re really meant to just put it behind you.

But all the same, I kept coming back to it every so often. There are times when you have no Humanity and very few Souls, and thus little to lose from challenging something likely to kill you. “Who knows? Maybe I’m strong enough by now.” I wasn’t. Lately, I hadn’t done this in a while, due to making encouraging progress elsewhere in the game — I seem to finally be slightly ahead of the difficulty curve. But then I noticed that I had somewhere picked up the Black Iron armor set, which gives very strong protection from fire (this being the reason it’s blackened), and in addition had access to an unlimited source of Twinkling Titanite, the substance needed to upgrade it.

Even with this protection, defeating the dragon took multiple tries and a certain amount of strategizing. I found it more effective to lure the dragon down the bridge and hide in a niche while it approaches than to try to charge into its flames. I found I needed a weapon that arcs upward, which is the one big failing of my trusty halberd. But in the end, the dragon was gone, and I could finally reach the other end of that bridge.

And the reward for this accomplishment was… marginal. You get 10000 souls for killing the dragon, which would have been a substantial boon earlier in the game, but at this point I can get that much in a single grinding loop. You get to open that gate, providing easy passage between two places that I have no reason to go to any more. And there’s a bonfire I can warp to. And that’s basically it. The difficulty of this fight is so out of proportion to its rewards that it really reinforces what I already knew: that the dragon’s purpose is not to be fought, but to be circumvented.

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