Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction

Reviews of the 2018 entrants

From Les fleurs animées (1867)

Last year’s Interactive Fiction Competition had the largest number of entrants ever, and with nearly 80 games and stories most people had no hope of playing them all. IF Comp’s sibling festival, Spring Thing, is less intimidating for both players and authors: it has looser guidelines, lower stakes, and more experimentation.

I played all fourteen entrants in the Main Festival (completed works, eligible for prizes) and most of the Back Garden entries (experimental or unfinished works). Though not every piece worked for me, of course, I’m glad I played them all—I got to revisit some authors whose works I’ve appreciated in the past, try out some promising new storytelling interfaces, and discover some terrific new writers.

Best Gopher Ever

Arthur DiBianca

A doe sits behind the counter, filing her hoof with an emery board. She looks up. “Hi hon, I’m Janice, welcome to Tool Emporium. Are you having a nice day? I’m not. No one has bought anything, and look at these hooves: they’re a mess, and I’m all out of my beautiful red hoof polish.”

Suitable for beginners and designed to be child-friendly, Best Gopher Ever is utterly charming. DiBianca is known for his finely-tuned, stripped-down games with limited command sets that often hide great complexity. Here he takes the humble fetch quest (often a lazy way to pad out a larger adventure) and maximizes it: the game is explicitly about fetching items for non-player characters and nothing else.

I really enjoyed it. The puzzles are gentle but not entirely effortless — I had to pause a few times to think about what to do next. I can imagine a parent playing it with a child on their lap, voicing the funny animals and solving it together. It’s a game that’s meant to be read aloud.

A Bunch of Keys

Mike Gerwat (author), Al Golden (coding)

This is a shiny key, with a triangular end, and it has holes at the top end of it. It fits into a piano’s triangular lock. A string can be inserted through the hole so the key can be worn round the neck, or hung up anywhere. There seems to be some writing on it, but it’s extremely small and if you try to feel the writing, that doesn’t work. There is something familiar about it.

Allowing us to experience someone else’s world is one thing that games can do arguably better than any other medium. Gerwat’s ambitious game invites us to play as a blind character (who is also hard of hearing, but has cochlear implants). Rooms and objects must be explored by feeling rather than looking, and written material is a mystery unless in Braille or read by an assistant.

Unfortunately, as a game and a story it’s pretty rough—I couldn’t get through the opening sequence, and the included walkthrough suggests that a successful play-through without hints would be near-impossible. There’s a slimmer, more polished version of this story that could really shine, but that’s not what’s presented here.

Confessions of an NPC

Charles Hans Huang

“Hey there. Thanks for coming by. I’m glad you’re here to talk about my struggles. The word needs to get out about how princesses are dealt with in the adventuring business.”

This series of “interviews” with videogame characters puts you in the position of interlocutor: the NPCs reflect back on their lives and what it taught them, and you occasionally pose questions. At the end of each piece you’re given the option to type a response back, as a note to oneself. These responses are played back to you at the end.

The choices you’re given at the end of each section can be confusing: you may be speaking to the character, performing an action, or just moving to the next section — I would’ve liked to see some interface distinction among these. There’s also an unpleasant text shadow effect over the whole work which made reading it fatiguing. I don’t think I’m the audience for this piece: I didn’t recognize the game allusions, and I tend to prefer my interactive fiction to have more of a narrative through-line.

Drumsticks

Luke A. Jones

You have just eaten a huge breakfast fry-up, including a couple of rather gristly sausages. The grease sits heavy in your stomach. You are contemplating what to do today when in bursts Robin Lye, the local music promoter. He dashes over to you and panting for breath he says, “You still managing that band The Bony Kings?”

In this short comic game, you must navigate around your small town scraping together a gig and solving last-minute emergencies. The writing is spare but evokes a good sense of place—I got a feel for the village and its cast of characters, and there are some genuinely funny bits. I especially liked a gag about Russian nesting dolls which surely has been done in IF before but still made me laugh.

Drumsticks would’ve benefited from a prologue with one or two starter puzzles; instead the player is immediately given a host of tasks with no clear first steps. I wasn’t able to make any real headway in any of them, and there are no hints. There are also many typos, and some outright implementation bugs (talking to characters returns error messages). The faux typewriter font looks great in the header, but I encourage IF authors to exercise restraint when it comes to body text—readability is key!

The Eyes That Look Back

Leno

The Eyes That Look Back, by Leno
The random nature of the [photocopy] machine fascinated her. How every copy was not a copy but a version of the original document. The quality degradation that could turn an important document into an unreadable, valueless mess.

This short meditative piece makes effective use of visual effects, from the background image to text changes to thoughtful use of timed reveals. Some stories like this can feel like you’ve opened to a random page in someone’s diary, and while this piece is obviously very personal, I never felt lost. There’s a nice sense of increasing dread which, depending on your choice, can either be pulled out of—or spiraled into.

Guttersnipe: The Baleful Backwash

Bitter Karella

Gadzooks! All you were doing was eating some old shoes out of the trashcans, as a street urchin is wont to do, but it seems like these mobsters really think you were after some dirt on them! Well, that don’t matter none; it’s not like they can keep you here.

I can’t say much about this puzzle-oriented comic game as I was unable to get out of the first room (there are no hints). It’s very difficult to write in dialogue and I’m not sure this game’s tone would’ve worked for me in the end, but I would’ve liked to give it a fair shake. The layout of the interface looked broken to me, due to the large amount of space allocated to the map, and many typed commands returned error messages.

House

Karona

“Why did you choose metamorphosis as a theme?” I asked.
“I was thinking of you,” she said, “and from there it was simple to start thinking about seclusion in a cocoon and the emergence of a colorful new creature.”

This thoughtful work asks the player to explore a couple’s emotionally fraught past by exploring topics or re-living memories. The conversation system is quite open-ended for interactive fiction: you have the option not just to ask a person about a single topic, but to combine topics contextually. (The extensive “about this game” section suggests commands as complex as “ask adventurer why she explores caves.”)

This is a very difficult approach to pull off: the potential combinations are almost unbounded, and while I made decent progress into the story, I was never able to successfully execute a complex question (the game notes that it is unwinnable unless you do). I would’ve liked the work to be more overtly motivated— these are heady, unpleasant topics, with a high demand on reader attention and creativity, and after a time I simply ran out of steam to keep attempting to unlock the backstory.

Illuminismo Iniziato

Michael J. Coyne

“Area resident Ninario the wizard has, somewhat confusingly, denied any and all involvement. When informed that the story was explicitly about him and his apprentice, Ninario denied having an apprentice. When pressed further, Ninario denied knowing any apprentices, denied there was an apprenticeship program at Oxbridge, denied that he was a wizard and informed the Town Tattler that he would be suing them for libel, if that paper existed, a fact he also denied.”

An exceptionally well-crafted puzzle game in the old style, with a solid implementation and snappy writing. Illuminismo is a sequel to a much larger 2004 game that I haven’t played, but I had no problem following the plot, in part because it knowingly travels the well-worn path of “whimsical story about magical apprentices.” Not all of the puzzles were intuitive but a chatty in-game help system meant that I never felt frustrated. The built-in map was quite useful given that some locations tend towards sprawl, and the running gag of the newspaper stories misreporting your actions — often literally a turn after they occurred — could have backfired but totally worked. I enjoyed it a lot.

The Imposter

Enrique Henestroza Anguiano

The Imposter, by Enrique Henestroza Anguiano
He notices a figure ambling across the street and onto the Rue des Saints-Pères to his left. The recognition jolts his body, his vision a blinding white. When it clears, he rushes to the corner and catches sight of you walking away, tweed cap pulled down over your eyes, shoulders hunched under a thick sweater and hands nestled into your pockets.

This short piece has a lot going for it: a terrific sense of place, nice use of imagery, and a strong command of pacing. Anguiano carefully mixes different hyperlink styles—some choice, some expand-in-place—to generate a regular rhythm that builds a slow sense of dread. I appreciated the way the story inverts the use of the second person; it would not work nearly as well if the story followed the IF convention of making “you the main character.

(Even if I didn’t enjoy it on its merits — which I did — I’d be delighted that this piece exists: it’s the first story written using my hypertext fiction framework, Windrift, that I did not personally author. Windrift requires that the writer to be comfortable with modern JavaScript programming and so I’ve expected the number of authors to remain very low. I’m charmed to see someone use it and to produce a very polished product.)

Murder on the Big Nothing

Tony Pisculli

The world lurches into motion — a buzzing, blooming confusion of light and sound. Through the open side door of the boxcar, you can see a man and a woman running for the train. In the distance you can see splashes of red and blue, lighting up the backstreets of Grand Rapids — local police on the hunt. The sound of their sirens isn’t enough to obscure the wail of a distant bank alarm.

It may take you a few tries to catch on to what’s happening in this short noir—a punchy, compact story that gets a lot out of the non-linear nature of IF. It could benefit from just a little more polish (the default description for “examine me” is especially jarring here) but Big Nothing is effective at telling a compelling story in very few words that couldn’t be told in traditional fiction.

Roads in Tempest

Adam Bredenberg

I ENVISION THIS GAME LIKE A VAST CIRCULAR STORM
it never makes sense,
so the form doesn’t matter,
the story doesn’t matter,
the character is the only thing that matters
and she is a woman

This is a steam-of-consciousness piece; the author advises you that it has a “circular structure with no ending.” There’s quite a bit of text here—even after exploring for quite a while I never did loop around to text I’d seen before. Some of the fragments are enticing, but there was really nothing for me to grab on to given the deliberate absence of structure. I hope the author is able to shape these into a more accessible work in the future.

Sherlock Indomitable

Brian Craig Rushton

“Watson, my old friend, what brings you here?”
He steps slowly into the light. You immediately notice two things: first, that he has a new walking stick with an unusual engraving. And, second, that there is something peculiar about his face.

Rushton adapts two Sherlock Holmes stories into the interrogation/deduction framework he employed successfully in his 2016 game Color the Truth. It’s instructive to compare this implementation to House—both works require the player to find relationships between themes and memories and make those linkages explicit in order to advance the plot. Indomitable guides us through that mechanism the first time, and provides copious hints along the way; it’s also a very natural extension of the detective story genre and our motivation—solve the mystery! — is clear.

A lot of care went into the visual design of the online version and it shows. I would’ve preferred that game itself be a bit more streamlined: there’s a framing story, two complete mysteries, the clue/conversation system, and a four-room “memory palace”—the transitions between these sequences were often abrupt. I like mystery games, and detective stories are uniquely suited to the interactive treatment because their elements of exploration, discovery, solution, and resolution are satisfying to play. Too many extraneous elements can detract from that natural arc.

Spy EYE

The Marino Family

There, crouching like a panther, he froze for a second, turning to face them. He was like one of those stuffed cougars at the Natural History Museum — except very much alive. His muscles were tensed, as if he were ready to spring at them.

There’s a lot going on in this madcap game aimed at children: poetry, power-ups, illustrations, multiple points-of-view, and jetpacks. The story touches on some potentially sensitive issues about race, class, and international adoption/fostering; I’m in no position to judge how these are handled except to say that they appear to be addressed with good intentions.

Zeppelin Adventure

Robin Johnson

You hear a savage BOOM from below you, and some objects fly over the sides. Oh dear. They looked like bits of the zeppelin’s engine. You’re not an expert mechanic, but you’re pretty sure that isn’t supposed to happen.

I had fun with this pulpy old-school adventure, the second game in this Spring Thing to feature a pterosaur. The puzzles are simple by design but often clever; I especially enjoyed one involving whimsical clockwork animals that requires successive playthroughs but is perfectly fair.

Johnson’s custom UI worked better for me in this game than in Detectiveland. Zeppelin Adventure, made up of minimalist object manipulation puzzles, is a natural fit for selecting and using inventory with the mouse. Readability was an issue for me in both games, though; despite getting into the groove of the adventure the DOS-era typography eventually wore me out. [Edit: The font is changeable via the Options menu at the bottom, and Johnson is adding the ability to change the color palette.]

Stories from the Back Garden

Works submitted to the “Back Garden” of Spring Thing may be experimental or incomplete; often they test the boundary of what “interactive fiction” means. I didn’t have time to explore them in depth, but did try out what I could:

Life in a Northern Town (credited to People + Places) is a sprawling, multiple POV narrative centering around an out-of-work graphic designer who follows the petrochemical boom to North Dakota. I played through the first sequence, a longish Twine story in its own right, and was sucked in by the writing and unusual (for IF) setting. There’s room for improvement: replace the default Twine look-and-feel, and adjust the pacing of the links and reveals—some pages are very short and in a long story the reader can get fatigued by all the clicking. I would definitely read a final, packaged version of this story.

REALLY, IF / REALLY, ALWAYS (Dawn Sueoka) is creepy in a good way, composed entirely out of utterances from an early implementation of the ELIZA chatbot. It’s solidly presented with nice typography and unsettling film stills and totally my kind of jam.

Venience World (Daniel Spitz) is a game fragment that demonstrates a novel interface: a kind of hybrid parser/hypertext UI that feels very natural to use with a keyboard. I found the story itself to be opaque, but the UI and visual design were both really slick and I’m excited to see how this project evolves.

…More at Spring Thing 2018
From Les fleurs animées (1867)