Archive for May, 2022

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.