2016 in Review

2016 has been a pretty calamitous year for a lot of people and arguably the world–personally, it’s been an eventful one for me. Not good, not bad. Just eventful. I relocated temporarily to the opposite coast, among other things, and am currently enjoying mild rain and overcast skies on New Year’s Eve and getting to consider that inclement weather. I’ve spent more time with my family in the past five months than I have in about six years; I’ve undergone a harrowing move and a very stressful foster cat re-homing (with a happy ending!), I’ve changed jobs and insurance plans twice. I’m hoping 2017 will be a little more placid, for the sake of making headway on creative projects and other things, but that’s not entirely up to me! Either way, I’ve emerged from 2016 with a little less money and a few more life skills. But my family and I are in good health, my cat is happy, my life while not in order is at least stable, and I will be eating tteokguk tomorrow and reflecting on how much worse it could have gone.

In books, I probably did the least reading in 2016 that I’ve done in ages: no more than about 30 books, not counting partial rereads and the like. I “discovered” Frances Hardinge and fell in love in late 2015 and early 2016, particularly with Fly by Night and The Lie Tree; she was my favorite YA/kids’ lit venture of 2016, though I also had a reasonably good time with Leigh Bardugo and Six of Crows, and was massively let down by Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King. I went on a bit of a Star Wars nostalgia-cheese kick with Jude Watson’s Jedi Apprentice novels, which are great if they are exactly what you are looking for. I read some romance novels–m/m (Aleksandr Voinov) and m/f (Tracey Garvis-Graves)–which were what they were, more or less, and I dipped into memoir with Rebecca Solnit (The Faraway Nearby) and Lidia Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water). I also read a few famous things for the first time–The Daughter of Time comes to mind–and reread a few for the nth time, like Lolita and Northanger Abbey.

My favorite book of 2016 was Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night: a sumptuous, ridiculous, epic, no-holds-barred kind of book that delivers exactly what you want it to. Sometimes you just want to read a book like that. It’s grand in scope and lovely in the particulars. I really can’t wait for the disappointing but richly appointed movie adaptation.

2015 was the first year in a while I played almost none of the IF Comp entries, so 2016 was pretty light on IF in general–I played and reviewed a few Twine games, and team-played a few classic old parser games with my best friend (puzzle-solving with a friend is really a treat). I discovered the pleasure of room escape, which I’ve been dedicating a fair number of my weekends to ever since.

As for personal projects, I keep hacking away at my novel and my hopeful Spring Thing entry for 2017, as well as a few shorts. More about all of those as more is established!

Happy New Year and all the tteokguk you could wish for.

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Niccolò Rising and Rogue One

I’m not going to bother to try and draw thin thematic parallels between Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolò Rising and the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, except that they’re both media I consumed (or finished consuming, in the case of the Dunnett book) this past weekend and, I guess, are both prequels to series I’m reluctantly invested in. Or just invested in, to be honest. The reluctance phase has passed. I like Lymond and I like Star Wars, so I was predisposed to like both of these things. And I did! I did. Just… in different proportions.

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Romancing the Twine

So I’ve been plinking along at a Twine game (which we shall call The General’s Bride), as a break from the Big Intended-For-Spring-Thing Inform 7 Project (which we shall call Maupertuis). I haven’t actually played around with Twine since Twine1 and SugarCube were the default format, so getting used to Harlowe has been an adventure. I must say the information out there is not really the most organized, so I’ve been relying on haphazard Google searches and forum browsing to learn the ropes. It’s been interesting. Full disclosure: I started this project when I was sick and the idea of one-sentence hyperlinks seemed accessible to my needs at the time. This has, of course, gotten completely out of hand in the meantime.

general-screencap-for-blog

The General’s Bride–as the name might indicate–is a romance game: something similar to a four-route visual novel making limited use of variable tracking in order to produce four endings through three choices. I’m trying to keep it short and manageable, for purposes of learning Twine through a beginner’s project. That’s… uhh…

attractive-twine-is-for-chumps

… that’s going.

Anyway, writing something in the romance genre with Twine is interesting because I haven’t actually seen many multi-route romances in this format before: even though it really does resemble Ren’Py in a lot of respects in execution. I’ve seen a lot of artsy psychological explorations of a single relationship, or of a relationship with oneself, or both, but almost never the kind of date-your-way-through-a-decision-tree you commonly see in ChoiceScript games. So here is my visual novel without the visuals, coming soon! A short dating sim without the dating. It involves muslin, pelisses, and military rule.

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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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