IF Only: Games from Spring Thing 2017

cover from Ishmael

Spring Thing is a yearly festival for interactive fiction, with two sections: the Main Festival, where the games are in competition and anyone may vote for a favorite; and the Back Garden, for unranked games that the authors wanted to share but not receive a ranking. This somewhat unusual structure means that the Back Garden has become an attractor for games that might not be well suited to a traditional competition: experiments, academic projects, multimedia-heavy efforts, and samplers of unfinished work. The games are freshly available this year, and here’s a sampling:

Ishmael (Jordan Magnuson, Twine) tells the story of a young Palestinian boy and the experience that sets him on the path towards violence. It’s primarily interested in the experience of the child, rather than the politics of the region, so although there are plenty of indicators of what it refers to (including the title of the game itself), at no point does anyone actually refer to Israel or Palestine by those names.

Ishmael is so extensively crafted that it doesn’t necessarily look or feel like Twine. There is ambient sound, introduced to good effect at a particular key juncture in the story. There is art throughout, sometimes as a backdrop to the text, sometimes to tell the story itself; at one point, the text moves out of the way to allow the player to draw in the dirt that has been a constant background. There are several minigames to play with other children, including an implementation of tic-tac-toe in which it is your choice of opponent that determines whether you will win, lose, or draw. (If you’re wondering how it’s possible for an adult player to lose at tic-tac-toe, let’s just say that not all of your opponents necessarily play fair.)

Magnuson has written multimedia-enhanced interactive fiction games before, including the extensively-arted Mrs Lojka. For me, at least, the effects in Mrs Lojka could be heavy-handed to the point of being distracting; Ishmael manages them more naturally.

Magnuson is also extensively familiar with the history of interactive fiction, including parser IF, and interested in the theoretical question of how a highly linear game differs from a short story; his article on Adam Cadre’s Photopia goes into that question at length. That craft and theoretical groundwork are on display in Ishmael as well: many of your choices in the game are phrased as though they were parser commands, even though there is no parser.

screenshot from Ishmael

Meanwhile, the interactions in the story capture the texture of Ishmael’s life; the sense of childhood waiting set against parental grief; the baseline poverty he is too inexperienced to recognize as such; the involvement in contests that are not always fair.

Get Seen Tonight (Hannah Powell-Smith, Texture) is the story of a cop and the club singer/informant she’s sleeping with. This takes place in not-exactly-our-world, as people are able to communicate through skin-signals; but the core of the story, really, is about loyalty and about how one reacts in a difficult situation. Though it’s not a long story, the situation is fraught enough that I found myself struggling over a couple of the decisions, in a way I usually associate with longer works and more time to invest in the characters.

In most Texture pieces, when you drag a verb like “accuse” over part of the text, the tooltip changes to show the noun — like “accuse her”. In Get Seen Tonight, the tooltip instead offers you a motivation, an explanation for why you might do what you’re thinking of doing, or a little bit of extra interiority. Like so:

screenshot from Get Seen Tonight

When it came to the most difficult choices in the game, when I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, I found myself dragging the verbs around the page, indecisive, looking for extra information that would help me make my decision. What I found was never quite enough to put me at ease about a choice, but I welcomed the chance to explore what was in the protagonist’s mind at that moment.

left/right (Chandler Groover; Inform, but choice-based) is a micro-sized piece in which you play over and over again a one-move experience of choosing to go left or to go right — satirizing the way the “left tunnel or right?” question is one of the oldest and also the least interesting in choice-based interactive fiction. In Groover’s game, your decision always results in a short, tightly written description of what happens next, followed by the remark that this is fate. In other words, your agency is unimportant and possibly nonexistent. Like so:

screenshot from left/right

What makes this piece is the quality of the very short, poetic passages that result from going left or right. Though tiny, they are intensely evocative, suggesting entire worlds in a few lines. I found myself playing through this piece for much longer than I would have anticipated.

The Weight of a Soul (Chin Kee Yong, Inform) is a Back Garden entry. You’re a newly trained doctor present at the outbreak of a new disease, in a world where alchemical principles obtain.

screenshot from The Weight of a Soul

The author warns that the story is not yet complete, but the portion submitted to Spring Thing is sizable nonetheless, and robustly built. The opening scene manages to be both tutorial and hook — never an easy feat in IF — as the surgeon you assist is telling you what to look for in the operating room, and there are constant messages reminding you what you ought to be doing to move the story along. But after that urgent scene, the story opens out a bit, allowing you to walk home through your neighborhood, have an optional encounter with a neighbor, take a look through your own inventory or the meticulously implemented scenery. Like so:

The ground is littered with what must be dozens of dead pigeons. A char-golem is busy sweeping the carcasses into a bag, while a gobliness slouches beside the fountain nearby.

>x char-golem
An animated golem comprised of cast iron. The stamp on its forehead identifies it as property of the Council of Works.

When it’s finished, The Weight of a Soul promises to be an expansive, ambitious game in the tradition of Anchorhead, Blighted Isle, or The King of Shreds and Patches. And it has good precedent in this — a portion of Blue Lacuna previewed in Spring Thing, and came out a few years later to widespread acclaim.

There are lots more games where those came from, including an experimental interactive opera and two different games both called A/The Fly on the Wall. If you’re interested, you too can sign up as a judge and submit your views on the Main Festival work.

[Disclosures: Emily has met Hannah Powell-Smith. She also works with Aaron Reed, the author of Blue Lacuna and current competition organizer of Spring Thing. More generally, 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.]

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