Text can conjure modes of thinking impossible to convey in images. Wordplay games are an obvious subset of this. Interactive fiction supplies plenty games where you can interact with metaphors as though they were reality, or use verbs only if they start with the correct letter, or convert objects into anagrams of themselves. In fact, the interactive fiction database offers dozens of games in this style.
But there are other and subtler forms of textual strangeness as well: protagonists who think very unlike us, differences between the game universe and our own that only show up after some time, ambiguities deliberately cultivated.
Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World (Jedediah Berry, Twine). Berry is a novelist and a writer in experimental forms. (One of his other stories takes the form of a deck of cards, The Family Arcana, on which are written peculiar vignettes from the life of an unnatural family.) Fabricationist DeWit is a lightly puzzly post-apocalyptic story. At the core of the story is your interaction with a non-player character of remarkable charm and persistence.
As for your protagonist, you’re… what? The text doesn’t say; at least, not immediately and not in a straightforward way. You’ve woken from some kind of preserving stasis, and you remember something that is at least metaphorically similar to childhood. But at another point, you’re told that a particular action would be possible “if you had two arms.” Has something happened to one or both arms, or did we never have them to start with? Gradually the hints accrue, and we begin to understand the nature of the protagonist and the world.
The other thing I like about Fabricationist Dewit is that it’s surprisingly hopeful, even cheerful, without being too horribly cheesy. The world has been, by our standards, pretty much destroyed. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can happen on the other side of that destruction. Life is remarkably persistent. If 2016 is making you gloomy about the future of humans, maybe try some Fabricationist DeWit.
Harrison Squared Dies Early (Daryl Gregory, Twine) is a short, lightly illustrated Twine piece: part mystery, part comedic riff on Lovecraftian themes and cryptozoology. The protagonist, Harrison Harrison, is a teenager with a prosthetic leg, the result of having his limb bitten off by a sea monster. In a move that can only be described as spectacularly genre-blind, he has matriculated at Dunnsmouth High. And now, the school’s aquarium is broken, its shark mascot is missing, and there are weird noises coming from deep inside the building. The piece is a tie-in for the author’s more traditional novel, I gather, but it works fine to play on its own (and indeed I haven’t read the book).
Harrison Squared may be Twine, but its world model and structure feels more like a classic text adventure. There’s a map you can navigate, an inventory of possessions, and several lightweight mathematical puzzles.
But Harrison Squared also sets up almost every interaction as a transgression. “Don’t pick up the net,” the game might say, and of course you click and of course you do pick up the net. Perhaps three quarters of the way through the narrative, you can sneak through, John Malkovich-style, into the backstage part of the universe and see where the narrator is working. But long before then, the writing has set you up in opposition with the writer, disobeying at every turn. At the same time, there is still an actual story here, with genuine possibilities for success or failure; this isn’t Stanley Parable. You’re trying to make the title false, keep Harrison Harrison from dying early, and protect the other characters fool enough to attend or work at a high school named Dunnsmouth.
Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony (Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, Inform) tells the largely autobiographical story of co-author Ben Kidwell’s manic break, during which he believed in the transcendent power of his own song-writing, and the participation of all people in a cosmic wheel. It’s not without its flaws and odd moments: indeed, you may have noticed a typo in this screenshot.
Nonetheless, Kidwell’s experiences make a surprisingly effective basis for a game. The protagonist believes that he’s being given cosmic quests to perform for the good of all mankind, which explains why from time to time you the player are assigned arbitrary new tasks to do. These tasks take us all over a text adventure version of Madison, Wisconsin — a setting that emerges, at least in this rendering, as a friendly, hippie-ish environment. Most people are laid back and friendly, even when the protagonist is on a rant about the influence of the moon. Accompanying Harmonic are recordings of the songs that Ben composed during his experiences.
Meanwhile, the fact that all of this is rendered in text keeps our definition of reality pretty fluid. We get descriptions of mystical events that couldn’t possibly be real, or of ordinary places interpreted in extraordinary ways, but at the same time there’s always the sense of a genuine place underneath, one with actual street corners and coffee shops and parking lots.
Summit (Phantom Williams, Twine) tells the story of a journey through a strange land. The eponymous summit is your goal, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t get there: there are many other places you can end up, and many ways you can read the experience. Perhaps you’ll stop and live in a city for a while, or join a university, or take part in an archaeological study.
And periodically you will need to open up your fishstomach and consume one of the many symbiotic fish that swim within. Consuming fish is a sign, and probably even a cause, of mortality, but you also can’t really live without fish. Everyone has a fishstomach. There are stories of a time when people didn’t have fishstomachs, but nowadays, everyone does.
If Fabricationist DeWit concerns the persistence and unsquashability of life, Summit looks at the brighter side of death. Our lives are finite, but it is that boundedness that gives our choices meaning. We can’t go everywhere and do everything.
[Disclosures: Emily Short is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website. She has not, to the best of her knowledge, met any of the authors whose works are the subject of this particular article.]