Sub-Q: The Tunnel; Teeth and Ice

A short review post! Sub-Q is a really interesting venue that I haven’t been keeping up with nearly as much as I should be. I’ve really enjoyed some of their reprints, like Lime Ergot (which I also never got around to playing the first time around!) and The Space Under the Window (which I did, but still relished the chance to replay). I did, however, play two of their more recent horror games–Natalia Theodoridou’s The Tunnel and Hannah Powell-Smith’s Teeth and Ice.

They’re both short pieces, in Sub-Q style; they’re both hyperlink-based, more or less; they’re both creepy and suspenseful, though in very different settings and with very different overall vibes; and they both deal with a central relationship which the horror sort of crystallizes around. Beyond that there’s not too much comparison–they’re very different games, and good examples of the different things that can be done with small-scale interactive fiction.

The Tunnel: The Tunnel is a game about the breakdown of a marriage backgrounded by a European passenger train that enters a very long tunnel. This is kind of a classic thriller setup–the claustrophobic setting, the differing motives of the passengers–but the end result is a bit more bleak and depressing and, in fact, creepy than it is thrilling. I don’t mean that negatively. The horror in The Tunnel is translucent metaphor: being trapped within an endless tunnel (which is not much of a spoiler), while indeed claustrophobic in a literal sense, also involves the claustrophobia of Katrina and Gregory’s relationship, and even more so, of being in Katrina’s head, the suffocating limitations of perspective.

She observes him as he converts the seats into beds and spreads the worn sheets. Suddenly he seems old, his back bent in a tired curve she’s never seen on him before. Something viscous and thick churns in her belly. Either pity or a special kind of loving aversion, but she doesn’t know which.

Overall the execution, particularly paired with the multimedia effects, of The Tunnel is very solid. Upon reaching an ending the text along with the entire user interface fades slowly into transparency, which is very unsettling in context. The claustrophobia works–I found myself well aware of where the story was going and grimacing as it slowly but surely ended up there, which is a position I shared with Katrina, I believe. If I had to name a weakness of the game, it might be archetypal predictability: there’s the kind of grinding inevitability I just named, which is a strength of the story, but there’s also the slightly wearying inevitability of meeting a couple on board a train trip and already knowing what kinds of litfic-esque problems they’re going to have. It’s a good, unnerving little story, though.

Teeth and Ice: Teeth and Ice is perhaps the only selkie story I’ve ever read that takes an entirely unfamiliar shape, which is very refreshing. It’s a very short action-suspense-horror game about reclaiming your skin from the house of your captor before he (or He) gets home. This all becomes quickly apparent in the course of a few “turns” of the game, but the real suspense and tension of the game is in scrabbling past your obstacles while the inevitable creeps ever closer. The stakes are extremely high and your desperation is palpable. The prose is short, direct, and effective under the circumstances.

I would be bold. I would be bold, and reclaim what had been mine since I was born, had been taken from me by this thing that could not be called a person. My movements were sure. Smooth. Fast, as if sliding swiftly through kelp.

Teeth and Ice makes excellent use of identification with its protagonist: they’re a selkie, they need their skin, they’re terrified of their keeper, and with that you’re already invested. It doesn’t tell you much about the situation–you’re not in a very reflective frame of mind–so it spares you the object psychometry or chronic remembrances of many IF games. The Raconteur framework might be a little overcomplicated for the game: it allows for the tracking of your few resources, but given that there are so few of them, I think it might have been more immersive to leave them to the player to remember. Overall, though, I was very impressed with Teeth and Ice in concept and execution, which is maybe why I don’t have that much to say about it–it’s a game about imprisonment and abuse and terror, but more pressingly, it’s a game about surviving. You have an incentive to try to win, more than once if you have to.

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Escaping Rooms

Let’s dust this thing off in the year 2016 and talk about please God not 2016 escape rooms! I’ve been up to a lot of things in the past while, and among them is escaping from a decent number of rooms–five so far, actually, which may be nothing to an escape room aficionado but seems to me like a fair amount of escape to have under my belt. For the uninitiated, escape rooms/room escapes are basically like a real-life point-and-click or IF game: a series of interlocking puzzles presented in a physical environment that you (and usually a team of other people, either friends or strangers or a mix) have to solve in order to “escape” the room within an hour.

My inaugural escape room was The Agency, courtesy of Escape the Room NYC: a room that’s since been rotated out, I think, and I’m glad I got the chance to do it (with three friends and a couple of strangers) while it was still in play. Even if we failed, miserably. We did not escape that room. The fact that I’ve been victorious at all the other escape rooms I’ve done has not lessened the sting of the one that got away, the great white whale of room escape. But let’s not dwell on victory or defeat–I’m really interested in what escape rooms mean for teamwork, group dynamics, and puzzle and entertainment design geared towards groups large and small, towards people who know each other and people who don’t. So I’m going to give my general thoughts on the matter and then evaluate each of the rooms I’ve done from the standpoint of the design-for-a-group, the team experience, and how this actually played out socially.

As Emily Short points out in her post Learning About Multiplayer Puzzle Design From Escape Rooms, most IF and indeed most puzzle experiences are entirely single-player: if they become multiplayer, it’s through unintended teamwork and group brainstorming on the player’s end, not purposeful design on the game’s end, and ultimately they require one person to make final decisions and interact with the interface. Escape rooms, on the other hand, are pretty much universally built for teamwork–there’s even a strong element of corporate teambuilding exercise, since a lot of rooms are booked for that purpose, which is also interesting in terms of an unusual crossover of audience. They’re games or gamelike experiences that have a much broader consumer base than point-and-clicks or interactive fiction, partly by fiscal necessity; the majority of escape room customers aren’t dedicated gamers, they’re families or birthday parties or, as mentioned, workplaces. So you have an experience that’s intended for laypeople, not hobbyists, and in groups of (typically) 4-10, not solo, and that differentiates them a great deal from the games they superficially resemble.

My experiences with escape rooms have differed a lot not just based on the rooms themselves, but on the crowd I’ve been with when doing them. I’m really interested in them as a social experience, so I’m going to evaluate that aspect of each of the rooms I’ve done. (I’m excited that I’m going to get to do a sixth room on Sunday: Illuminati at Puzzle Workshop in Irvine, CA! We’ll see how it goes!)

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IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)

Scarlet Sails is a charming Choicescript game by Felicity Banks. I’ll say here that the oversaturation of the pirate tradition always wars with its enduring romance for me–agh, the endless merchandising! But the maps! But the colonialism! But the outfits! But the existence of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels! But the outfits!!! Ahem. What I mean to say here is that had this game included some kind of elaborate textual pirate dress-up feature, I would have been unhelpfully biased. As it is, Scarlet Sails was a good deal of fun. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2015: Untold Riches (Jason Ermer)

General: Untold Riches is a straightforward, by-the-numbers treasure hunt that knows what it is and knows what it isn’t.  You turn up stranded on a deserted island, missing the adventuring professor whose sidekick you are and whose hijinks have gotten you into this pickle in the first place, with nothing but your wits and a few glaringly placed crucial items that point towards hidden treasure on your new island abode.  Puzzle-solving awaits.  I’m definitely not the target audience for it–I didn’t know it was written for middle-schoolers when I started playing, but I’m certainly not surprised–but I enjoyed it well enough all the same. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)

Hello!  Dusting this thing off for some IF Comp 2015 reviews, starting with–

Midnight. Swordfight. is a parser-based story and puzzle game.  I should say right away that this is a game designed to cater to about 70% of my IF-playing whims–vaguely half-Renaissance half-Georgian setting, gender ambiguity, multiple endings meant for replay, surrealism, time–in a way that most games are not.  I love masques.  I love duels.  I love messing with reality.  Midnight. Swordfight. is necessarily my cup of tea.  The question is more whether the execution lives up to all the elements of the premise.

General: Midnight. Swordfight. is a short, light puzzle game from the perspective of a professional fool who is plunged into a duel to the death with a beautiful, dangerous countess with whom, they find, they are in love.  The duel, initially, is doomed.  Actions are limited by a short “playscript” that updates with every room and enumerates what verbs the player can use.  None of these things can avert the inevitable end of the midnight duel.  But the player quickly discovers that they can “wake up” into an entirely different world–the world before midnight.  By navigating both time and space in an absurdist series of Restoration-esque rooms populated by people (and un-people) both frozen and unfrozen in time, the player can choose to change their fate as well as the countess’s.  A mouthful!  Basically what this comes down to is: you rearrange things in the world outside the duel so that when you come back to it, things can go differently as you wish.
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Recent stories and reviews + BioShock Infinite

Dusting off this poor neglected thing: I’ve had book reviews out recently of Emma Newman’s Between Two Thorns and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, both located over at Strange Horizons for your perusal.  SH is currently up for a Best Semiprozine Hugo Award, as I’m sure you all know, so if you don’t already read it be sure to check out the magazine regardless–it’s lovely, all the departments are lovely, and I’m not at all biased, of course!

I also have two stories out or soon to be out on the web: “Swan-Brother,” in the March issue of Ideomancer, and “Legerdemain,” the April 16, 2013 story in Daily Science Fiction.  I’ll link to that too once it’s online.

I’m in the middle of Irrational Games’ most recent arresting and ambitious experiment, BioShock Infinite; I’ll post my mid-game thoughts on that soon and perhaps a review as well.  If nothing else, it’s a very striking achievement in visual design and worldbuilding, and a horror game carried off largely in full color–not a common sight in a world of greyish, gritty Silent Hill palettes.

Other forthcoming reviews should include Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy and Zachary Jernigan’s No Return.  Tune in or stay tuned!

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Holy shit, BBC One’s doing Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Via Den of Geek, I may sincerely expire of wild hopes and tremendous anxieties.

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