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.