IF Only: Birdland And The XYZZY Awards
Why Birdland won so many
Earlier this year, the interactive fiction community held its annual XYZZY awards to celebrate the best interactive fiction pieces (and a few types of technical work) from 2015. The XYZZYs are one of the longest-running awards in gaming, celebrated every year since 1997, when they honored the best IF games of 1996. This year one game dominated the awards, with good reason: Birdland.
The XYZZY Awards are idiosyncratic. There is the awards ceremony, held on an all-text mud, that tends to run two to three hours. This is exactly long enough that people attending who aren't already familiar with said mud are getting the hang of the commands and etiquette right about when it's time to log out. There's the name, which comes from the magic word XYZZY from Advent, and is incomprehensible other than as an in-joke. This raises the challenge level of explaining to your non-interactive-fiction friends what the heck you just won.
Then there's the spectrum of award categories. Best Use of Innovation tends to make the most sense if you're already avidly following what the IF community currently considers cutting-edge. Best Use of Multimedia means that the game includes any graphics or music or non-text aspect at all. At least the confusing Best Use of Medium award was retired a few years ago. No one could agree on what it really meant, and the psychic jokes were getting old.
Once upon a time, the XYZZYs sent out physical medals to the winners, deeply stamped with a brass lantern on one side. That practice stopped in the early 2000s. Since then, they've offered merely the Respect of One's Peers, and (lately) a detailed analytical write-up of all the nominees. Analysis for 2015 nominees isn't available yet, but you can see what was written about the 2014 games here.
The XYZZYs honoring 2015 were pretty hotly contested. The general consensus is that 2015 was an amazing year for interactive fiction, featuring strong, varied work by new and returning authors, multiple new venues for paid IF, and a sense of growing excitement and energy. There have been some years when it felt like a challenge to fill out the more specific categories — when there just weren't enough great puzzle games to make a compelling Best Puzzle slate, for instance — but this year there was an excess of plausible contenders in most areas. There were so many plausible nearly-nominated games that the XYZZY Awards site took the unprecedented step of publishing a list of runners-up.
Despite this plentiful and superb competition, one game pulled a Hamilton on the ceremony: Brendan Patrick Hennessy's sizable Twine Birdland, which took Best Game, Best Writing, Best Story, Best Non-Player Characters, Best Individual Non-Player Character, and Best Individual Player Character. (If you're wondering about the difference between Best Writing and Best Story, traditionally Writing tends to focus on prose quality and Story on plot, though it's a fuzzy distinction at times. Prior to Hennessy's win, the Best Writing XYZZY went to Porpentine for three years running.)
Birdland has been mentioned on RPS a couple of times before in round-ups, but it deserves a fuller discussion. It's Twine, but with an unusual format; it's a lesbian YA romance; and it's an exploration of how teenagers learn to define their personalities, expressed through the medium of game stats. It's charming and polished enough that you don't have to work too hard to get into it, but there's enough there to support further thought. You don't feel like you have to play it more than once to get a good experience, but there's plenty to reward you if you do. Birdland demands little and yet offers much, which is a rare accomplishment for any kind of art.
First, about that format, which might seem like the least important detail: Birdland is a pretty long game as Twine games go, and Hennessy has gone out of his way to make sure that it provides hooks so that you can put it aside and come back, or return to chapters midway through if you'd like to replay.
This helpful feature subtly alters the relationship between player and game. A lot of Twine pieces make no concessions of this kind: there's nothing to tell you how long the game will last, no method of saving partway through, no overview of the game's structure, no opportunity to navigate according to your own preferences or even to know what kind of shape you're going to navigate. You submit yourself to the experience when you enter. That sensation of constraint can be very powerful — My Father's Long, Long Legs, for instance, is effective partly because you don't know exactly how long it's going to last. But Birdland is more generous with the player. You can go back if you need to, start over, get a look at the shape of the story. It's fine.
Hennessy took the lesbian teen romance aspect seriously, preparing for Birdland by reading dozens of LGBT young adult novels to make sure he was connecting with the genre. One measure of his success: the game has won a significant tumblr following, with a steady supply of fan art and imagined scenarios around its protagonists. It's rare to see a huge amount of fan art for interactive fiction, and even rarer to see characters persistently shipped. Birdland even has fans who ship the secondary characters.
But when I think about it, I'm not really surprised that Birdland inspires that kind of fandom. It is not only that there's such a paucity of lesbian YA material, especially where the characters are given the chance of a happy ending. It's also that Birdland is character-centric in a way unusual even for Twine IF. Almost everything is delivered as dialogue, in a pseudo play format. Bridget gets many scenes with each of her friends, so there's time enough for emotional connections to build. Every critical moment of the plot involves other people and how you're relating to them.
Meanwhile, if you like a particular scene – if you want to replay the romantic tension from a slightly different angle, if you want to hear more and other jokes from those same characters you're getting to know – Birdland's chapter structure means you can revisit that moment easily. There's far more potential dialogue in each scene than you can see in one playthrough. At the same time, Birdland isn't a dating sim. There's one single love interest for Bridget, which means that the story can be written to strongly support and develop that relationship, rather than hold multiple relationships in potential.
All of that would be of slight value if the writing weren't so good. His characters have their own personalities, but they all speak in a way that is unmistakably Hennessyian and often wickedly funny. His humor often points out the unfair or the ridiculous, but it never reads as mean-spirited; and his punchlines sneak up on you so fast you're laughing before you know what happened. Replaying for this article, I may have startled the neighbors.
Finally, there's the deployment of stats. The structure of Birdland is as follows: each night you have a dream in which birds ask you how to behave in various scenarios. You may do whatever you like, but your choices set your personality stats for the waking life episodes that follow. During the "day" sections, where you play Bridget interacting at camp, you often encounter choices that are unavailable, crossed out because they don't fit the personality you're currently performing. Nonetheless, that personality is itself something you've constructed — and unlike the constructed personalities in a Choice of Games piece or a typical CRPG, you're not stuck with the decisions you made at the outset. You can change your personality profile over and over again every night. It's a beautiful conceit, one that takes the player's roleplaying mechanic and turns it into an expression of the protagonist's roleplaying.
If you get to the end of Birdland and decide you want more, Hennessy's also written a previous story about Bell Park and the delightful KING OF BEES IN FANTASYLAND, among other things.
[Disclosures: Emily Short has eaten dinner with Brendan Patrick Hennessy. She has also won some XYZZY awards. More generally, Emily 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.]