IF Comp 2016 is still running as I write this — though by the time you read it, we'll be down to the final days. Most years recently, I've been certain what game was going to win by this point in the process. This year, I truly don't know. Partly, that's because the crop is so very large. With nearly 60 entrants in the pool, there are still a couple of games I haven't even had a chance to look at at all. But partly it's also just a wildly diverse group of games and stories, trying very different things. How to compare the grief-filled short choice-based memoir Ash with the story-sparse parser-based logic puzzle that is Inside the Facility?
Still, I have a few more recommendations from this year's collection.
SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD (Xalavier Nelson Jr, Twine) casts you as a bear, but a bear with backstory and feelings and resentments. Through no fault of your own, and for reasons that aren't revealed until much later, you are air-dropped into a peculiar island factory in the middle of the Pacific while suffering uncontrollable flashbacks. You kill one of the workers accidentally by landing on him, but again, this really isn't your fault. Still, the other workers in the facility are freaked out and not sure what to do. The story flickers back and forth between the bear's experiences in the facility, the bear's flashbacks to its childhood and relationship to Bear Dad, and the reactions of the humans in the control room.
It's a pretty linear game. You do get to make some choices, including some emotional choices that I really liked. But there's also a lot of stepping through timed text or text produced in very short chunks. Also, the game does a lot with text wiggle effects. I read fast and click fast, so this didn't particularly bother me, but I suspect it may bother some people. Personally, I found that the piece really grew on me.
Some reviewers have suggested that the relationship of Bear and Bear Dad is the emotional core and therefore they don't really understand what's going on with the facility and the workers there. Conceivably I'm over-reading this, but I felt as though this did all thematically add up. A lot of the backstory about the father and the child is about the father's fears that the child won't be prepared for the real world, or will be crushed by it. And maybe that's reasonable, because they're both Bears. The world makes unpleasant, unjustified assumptions about Bears: for instance, that they're likely to be violent.
The response of the facility workers provides a context for what Bear Dad was so afraid of, and why he was trying to protect Bear You, even if his approach to protection was a lot of tough love.
I found myself reflecting on how prejudice and racism in society leach inward into the family, affecting even the closest relationships; and on how long it can take as an adult to understand what your parents were trying to overcome when they raised you. Which may be a surprising thing to find in a game full of puns about air-dropping bears.
Not Another Hero (Cecilia Rosewood, ChoiceScript) is a superhero story from the perspective of a non-hero. People with powers exist. You are not one of them. The government is trying to manage individuals with anomalous powers, but it doesn't always work out well, and sometimes "anomalies" get out of control and cause widespread damage.
The story establishes early on that this isn't just a simple parable about prejudice and The Other. Your character's parents were seriously damaged in an encounter with anomalies, and the first time you have an encounter with one, it proves to be terrifying and dangerous. The story realistically allows you to sympathize with the anomalous or turn against them — or, indeed, to occupy an awkward and uncertain middle ground, trying to be just and fair-minded and empathetic and also to protect yourself from damage.
As a piece of storytelling, Not Another Hero tends towards the expository, and there were times when I would have welcomed a little more direct dialogue and a little less backstory. But the choices and mechanics focus consistently on the same major themes. How does your character regard "anomalies"? How much force are you willing to use in protecting yourself? How much are you willing to risk in order to communicate with them?
It's a good match in style for Choice of Games' own branded games, so if you like those, you may well see the appeal of this.
The Shoe Dept (Aquanet, Twine) is a goofy romp in which the fifteen-year-old protagonist takes a retail job and very quickly finds himself involved in a preposterous conspiracy about world-threatening, mind-altering shoes.
The Shoe Dept gives you an inventory, which means that there are often a few hidden possibilities in any given scenario, involving thinking of the right item to use. Otherwise, you can stick with the obvious links. The structure allows for a few leaps of guesswork, but it's hard to get truly stuck. I found the game unfolded fairly quickly, and even during the most complicated parts of the story I only had to do a little bit of wandering to find the next possibilities and move on.
Many of the puzzles are about seeing through misleading appearances, or of forcing the wrong appearance on someone, or manipulating your own presentation. You shift the category to which you belong: generic retail peon, member of other organizations, a member of one of several stereotyped groups. At a critical point in the story, there's a puzzle that involves pretending to be less savvy about self-presentation than you actually are. Conformity is the weapon of the enemy.
[Disclosures: To the best of her knowledge, Emily is not personally acquainted with any of the authors whose work is represented here this week, though as it's possible for author names to be pseudonyms, she might be incorrect about this. 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.]