Interacting With Fictions: Guilded Youth

RPS friend and ally Leigh Alexander writes a short series about Interactive Fiction. This is part two.

Oh my god, the sound of a modem dialing.

I’m thirteen years old. I’m running home from the bus. I mean running, the snap of wet late winter unkind to my ragged breath – I never did sports, of course. The soundtrack is the rhythmic swish of the black and white Adidas parka I begged my mother to buy me because everyone else had one.

That sound, and the tinny din of cassette music ripped from the radio and spun from the chunky Walkman covered in Sailor Moon stickers that weighed, stuffed deep in my pocket like a secret, against my hip like a weapon. It had, as usual, not been a good day at school.

It hadn’t been a bad day, either, just another terminal march among a numb progression of lockers, oblique ballpoint notes wedged into impossible shapes, stinking gym equipment and the thin red line of the second circling the hour of escape with agonizing slowness. The bus trudges loyally, stop after stop, a march of children bundling home. I get off and I run, desperate as if on fire to slough off the shell of inoffensive fashion and the ghost-scent of illicit bathroom cigarettes.

Up the stairs in the sanctum of home, hurtling to the office, soft with the white noise of breathing machines. Waking the computer up, impatient fingers, black-chipped nails, starving for that particular sound: The scream of a dinosaur choking on static, rattling a cage. Some nights I’ll smother it fruitlessly with a pillow, crouching in the dark among red and green eyes winking, my eyes closed. Today I’m alone in the house and no one but I can hear this ugly, beautiful sound.

It ticks, skips, grates in rhythm with my clenched teeth. And then things blink and light, and finally I breathe easy.

I am just a bit too young to’ve been part of the BBS age, but I can relate: Nothing more complicated nor more basic than a human lifeline. The implicit understanding that you’re probably someone or other outside of your loosely-rulebound little world of second selves and typed actions, but you’d just mostly rather not talk about it; the awkward junction. Sometimes someone has to stop roleplaying and you later find out that their parents took the internet away for reasons your crew can only rumour.

That sort of gaming – such as it was, that inhabiting choice-driven fictions with virtual strangers – wasn’t about escapism as much as it was about exploring the friction between who you were and who you wanted to be. Jim Munroe’s Guilded Youth took third place in the 2012 Interactive Fiction Competition, and earned the authors’-choice “Miss Congeniality” award for its portrayal of uneasy and painfully-beautiful coming of age alongside BBS culture – sparse and direct in a way that feels universal.

The common complaint about IF is that those new to the form struggle to make games limited to text commands grasp what it wants you to do. As more an illustrated, interactive story than a game, Guilded Youth understands and uses so few actions that it’s navigable by basically anyone who’s ever used a computer before, and its limitations feel intentional, even charming in the context of its visual interface, which lends itself to thinking in the language of a clumsier age.

You’re Tony, who in his aspirational life is the thief in an online guild that also includes a flirtatious mage; a barbarian sort who has trouble suspending his disbelief; a bard concerned with appearing cool in his real life, a mysterious paladin, and a righteous wizard perhaps overly-concerned with enforcing the fantasy rules.

The fascinating identity friction of the BBS age came in part from the fact that you’d be dialing in with people from your own local radius – if you didn’t know them IRL already, the possibility (or threat, depending on your motives) of encountering them someplace in your little town was always very real. As Tony the Thief, you and Ryan the Bard are implied to be already fairly well-acquainted classmates, for example.

Guilded Youth presents an interesting catalyst for the offlining of these dial-up relationships: A deserted manor in town, an object of forbidden fantasy exploration for the younger teens and a rebel haunt for the older ones, is soon to be demolished, giving Tony one last chance to salve his complicated curiosity. The story is simple: Several trips to the manor will yield objects that compel the interests of guild-mates who’ll join up to help. The subtext – adolescence and the boundaries of self-identification at this inimitable point in time for these young people – is more interesting.

The interactive story is brief and linear, taking only 20 or 30 minutes to complete, but touching, aided in no small measure by the art of Matt Hammill, which employs distinct greenish ASCII art whenever Tony’s online and a muted, illustrated style whenever he’s not. These visual choices enforce the unique conflict we endured back in the days when meeting someone we’d only known as a screen name, an avatar, in the real world was a more complex proposition. Subtle animations, like the character portraits’ blinking eyes, add lovely, finished touches.

Guilded Youth, as something of a darling among well-liked Jim Munroe’s fellow creators, has already received a lot of feedback from the likes of IF empress Emily Short (on whom, incidentally, I frequently effuse online and then feel scared to talk to in person) and Brandon Boyer (who is my guild paladin, and doesn’t scare me at all). Munroe himself felt disappointed in the story’s linearity, if not its abrupt ending, and was motivated to add a variety of endings that provide a stronger epilogue on the player’s experience and identify it more strongly as the protagonist’s life-defining story. So if you’ve seen Guilded Youth already, it’s worth revisiting the latest version.

There are sound effects, too, occasionally. An alarm that evokes the guilt and confusion inherent in one’s first childish brush with authority – and the scent of illicit smoke. And that modem sound. That modem sound.

An embrace of retro aesthetics is far from new among small indie games, but this goes beyond that – we don’t just want to play like we used to. We need to feel like we used to. I fantasize about some third game that sings the strangled and discordant dial-up song so that Guilded Youth could form some kind of glory trilogy of our lost, poignant disenfranchisement alongside Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story.

Someone get on that. Enter command, run.

Play Guilded Youth online for free here.


  1. mgardner says:

    Thanks Leigh! The opening was especially enjoyable.

    …the thin red line of the second circling the hour of escape with agonizing slowness…

    Oh, what memories this particular phrase evokes. Brilliant.

    • arleneroberts says:

      just before I looked at the paycheck 4 $4180, I didn’t believe …that…my brother could truly earning money part time at their laptop.. there moms best frend started doing this 4 less than twelve months and a short time ago cleared the mortgage on their cottage and got a gorgeous Mercedes. we looked here..Read More

  2. Ultra Superior says:

    so many words

  3. noom says:

    I do enjoy Leigh’s writing. Must remember to visit sexyvideogame land more often.

    And yeah, that modem sound. I suspect it means something slightly different to those of the right age-range. For me it definitely evokes the frustrating battle of trying to co-ordinate Duke Nukem 3D deathmatches with my friends, swapping out the phoneline for the modem over and over again and the apprehension of sitting through all those beeps and wails to see if it was going to work this time.

    It’s nice to have such fond memories of the time I spent in the Red Light District as a teenager.

    • Ashryu says:

      and then you finally get it to work and say “hey, lets try pistols only this time….” Your friend agrees, and then he rpgs you, that dirty son of a…..

    • P7uen says:

      On Wireplay.


      Also: modem noise is my ringtone. People get annoyed.

  4. darkmouse20001 says:

    Yup, that modem sound means something totally different to me. It was certainly a step up from my best mates mums collection of cosmopolitan magazine. I also recall smothering the damn thing with a pillow.

  5. Ashryu says:

    This felt really college paper-ish…

    No offense, I’m by no means a writer. Just too verbose for my simple, alcohol-ravaged mind to really enjoy.

    • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

      Which gives it considerably more heft than your comment.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Verbose, like pretentious is a word usually used by people who can’t understand someone else’s expression, and feeling insecure and left out decide to describe them as being unnecessarily complicated, or having a self serving agenda to appear clever. It’s just a destructive thing to do and makes you look insecure and narrow minded; I hope one day you’re able to get past this and try to think appreciatively about what other people have done even if you do find it a little hard to understand or don’t really enjoy their style, you’ll find it much more rewarding and develop new ideas about the world, and you won’t sound so obnoxious either.

      • Ashryu says:

        Thanks for the advice, it was super verbose

      • EvilEgg says:

        I agree with Ashryu.

        Perhaps a “Click to Skip Anecdote” would be a good enough compromise. Also, just to pre-empt, if I choose not read the introductory narrative (which I am not criticizing in any way) and go straight to the meat, the actual review, then I am not at fault. This is still a journalistic site, yes?

        Now please remember kids, I didn’t say she absolutely shouldn’t include a nice little yarn of olden times.

        In Ashryu’s defence, perhaps when replying to him, you should focus on the subject at hand, and not your personal experience regarding people, their choice of words and any connotation you might perceive between them.

        If you really insist upon delivering out of context commentary, you could at least be less of an ass about it.

        Also, pretentious verbosity.

      • Om says:

        I’m confused. Is Eddy9000 being sarcastically verbose and obtuse? Or is he/she serious?

        In the case of the latter, there is a time and a place for verbosity but defending it (or rather ‘playing the man’) from a position of intellectual condescension is pretty silly. There’s nothing wrong with the modern tendency for streamlined communications and minimising unnecessary language. Certainly it’d wrong to describe this as a symptom of “insecurity”, “narrow-mindedness”, “obnoxiousness”, ‘lack of understanding’, or whatever other insult you’d like to dish out from your high horse

        Personally, I don’t have a major problem with the above piece. People should know what to expect from NGJ at this point

  6. Sinomatic says:

    “The scream of a dinosaur choking on static” – It still amazes me how a sound like a digital scream can foster so many happy, nostalgic emotions, but it does.

    I really enjoyed both the (beautifully written) article and the (spare, but effective) game. I was a little older when the internet entered my life but it still resonated in many ways.

  7. malkav11 says:

    Huh. Either I’m older than Leigh (which I would find kind of vaguely startling, the way I feel when anyone more famous than me turns out in fact to be younger than me…increasingly common, alas, as I near thirty), or my time with the BBS culture was past what she defines as the “BBS age”. Which, to be fair, is entirely possible. I did the BBS thing in the (edit – apparently early) 90s, because I was a bored, technophile teen, we had a Mac (so games weren’t really a thing outside of a few shareware games, none of which I could pay to register), and while we had a 14.4k modem, my mom didn’t actually sign up for an ISP for quite a while after we acquired it. So the internet was actively a thing (if not yet all that popular), I just didn’t have access.

    A local free computer periodical had a BBS number list in back, and I’d connect regularly to three: Hell, The HUB, and a third whose name I forget but which was 100% dedicated to playing door games. I tended to gravitate towards the latter because while I did contribute to a certain amount of discussion, I was like 13 and had no concept of a lot of the things the (mostly adult) other users were talking about. I have dim memories of posts discussing the latest Transmetropolitan, or meetups to go see Reservoir Dogs, and only many years later actually experiencing either. Obviously, as a minor I made no attempt to meet any of the other users, and seeing as I lived in a metro area with millions of residents, the chances that I ever inadvertently ran into one without knowing it are fairly small.

    I certainly don’t recall there being any roleplaying sessions on any of the three, but I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me if that were something that happened on one of the dozens of BBSes in town.

  8. dahitman says:



    Leigh Alexander an ally of RPS.

    • Dervish says:

      You have a classic example of all-about-me “new games journalism” right in front of your face and that’s your go-to “ugh” moment? A drunken numbers gaffe? I bet I am the biggest Leigh-hater on this site, and I’m telling you that’s just lazy.

      • EvilEgg says:

        “…the biggest Leigh-hater…”

        You mean there are MORE?

    • Adekan says:

      Good read. I liked the verbosity ( is that even a word? it is now! ) and vivid descriptions. I grew up in the 90s playing various online MUDs and MUSHes. I couldn’t wait to get home from school and hop on the computer, connect to AOL and start playing. I still enjoy the sound of a 56k modem making a successful connection.

      My only exposure to Leigh prior to this had been on a Gamers with Jobs podcast, in which she was drunkenly raving, and the linked video where she’s also drunkenly raving.

      I understand she feels she can unwind with friends, and generally it seems like the people she was speaking to on both podcasts didn’t have an issue with it. But it helps to keep in mind that these things are going live to thousands of people who have little to no exposure to Leigh, and that doesn’t exactly make a good first impression.

      Conclusion: Less public drinking, more great writing!

  9. Sarkhan Lol says:

    Competently written short story featuring a voiceless and uninteresting protagonist, that didn’t exceed or fall short of mediocrity in any way.

    But that’s just, like, my opinion man.

  10. FoSmash says:

    Guilded Youth is a fun game too.

    • EvilEgg says:

      We don’t talk about games on this site, son.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      It’s been a hoot so far, but alas, work bacons. Beckons. I should probably leave now.

  11. AKRaven says:

    that was great ! i love such game when i found KODP in iTunes it wast like i found my dream , do you know any other text based game ?

  12. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Leighgend Alexander more like