March 2017 Discussion

March 2017 was the first month of Text Club, and we played+discussed ‘Midnight. Swordfight.‘ by Chandler Groover, ‘Secret Agent Cinder‘ by Emily Ryan, and ‘Magical Makeover‘ by S. Woodson.

This discussion was originally on Imzy.com (RIP), but here’s an archive of comments. If you made one of these comments on Imzy & would like it removed or anything, just let me know!

Jake:

Alright! Some really interesting work here. What did you all think of these three?

Both “Magical Makeover” & “Midnight. Swordfight.” included some designers’ commentary at the end. I’m pasting each of those below in comments, for reference.

So what did you all make of the “dress-up” mechanics in these three games?

Anyone figure out the mystery of Matilda in “Midnight. Swordfight.”? I managed to talk to her & got a bit of background from Dmitri, but I have a feeling her storyline runs a little further, since I can’t quite figure out how to integrate it with the rest of the game (thematically/narratively).

ludzu:

Besides the link between the three games of “getting dressed/made up for the fairy tale ball” that Jake mentioned, another related theme I found is the PC is an intruder or at least personal enemy to the upper classes who are throwing the party. Your dress becomes a disguise and tool by which you win out against aristocrats. Using makeup you have no clue of the effects of in Magical Makeover is revealed to be part of your plan to steal from the princess, in which success or failure depends on if you chose right in the beginning, though failures have their value in helping you understand the world you’re in. You escape or win the final duel with the countess in Midnight Swordfight through constantly experimenting with costumes and weapons to see how you can interact with and within bizarre and abstracted spaces. And even if dressing up in weapons in Secret Agent Cinder has ultimately no effect on anything, it’s a funny little bit that helps set up the revolutionary spy character nicely.

An interesting character in Secret Agent Cinder is the dauphin, because he isn’t as clear an antagonist as the other two games but he occupies a similar role, since he’s also royalty. However he doesn’t want the “choking protocol” of the elite class and is romantically interested in YOU, unlike how the other two games involve the PC having some degree of romantic feelings for the royalty that wants your throat. Seeing the option to punch him after reading his long marriage proposal made me laugh, and it offers a nice counterbalance to the “happily ever after” choice. Unlike the rags-to-riches ideology of the fairy tale, marrying the prince means at best you’re going undercover, at worst you may be headed for the guillotine. And the reason why a perfect ending is impossible becomes clear in light of the fairy tale: Cinderella will always leave a shoe behind as evidence.

Reading Emily Short’s thoughts on how Magical Makeover succeeds where sorting hat CYOAs often fail, I agree with her that MM works as a “tightly knitted anthology”. It feels cheap when these sorts of games have you make choices that correspond to completely different universes, but this game feels like it has one cohesive world. It’s the little threads between endings that sell that feeling, like when Millicent receives a premonition that you’re in trouble in one ending, and in another you find out that it was your fairy friend/prisoner psychically reaching her to help you. Another thing is that every ending involves fantasy grounded in real life details, so no story feels weirder than another: the PC has magical flight sickness, Amherst exists in an alternate reality that’s basically ours but with plant people, the baby cassowary you try to free dreams of going to a normal school, etc. Emily also mentions the satire of the premise, of a world where makeup actually defines your future as much as cosmetics companies want you to believe it does, but I appreciate the way the details of the world seep in anyway. It adds a human touch to the premise that makes the whole experience more memorable and kinder. Also girl games are horrible, I can confirm this from seeing the SA thread the author mentioned.

Midnight Swordfight is pretty dense to take in with a LOT to talk about, but that’s what made it interesting. The way space and time fluctuate and run over each other was very cool, I thought it was a clever way to distort how players approach adventure games, time being infinitely at your disposal as you explore a finite space. I thought the sequence in which you fly to the moon as a pig, which was probably my favorite bit in the game, could be compared with Magical Makeover’s sense of getting a huge, unexpected result from trying something out of the blue, though the constant, smaller discoveries made in this game are what makes this moment more unique to the rest of it. I don’t know exactly how to apply Chandler’s commentary to his game on the whole, maybe it relates to perspective or the reality of things being beyond parody or belief, but the paleontologist’s find does make me think specifically about the vorpal blade and huge corpse of the beast on the moon. That and Dmitri saying the vorpal blade “can cut through anything simply because it doesn’t exist” has got me thinking if there’s more to it than just absurdity. I hope other people will add their thoughts about this! There’s a lot of facets of the game I wonder about even if I’m completely off about them, and it’s my favorite of the three for that reason.

Btw I never found anything else about Matilda, but I think she’s the reason the countess hates you, thinking you killed her friend. It’s the best guess I have for what the “rumor” could be.

jake:

“thought the sequence in which you fly to the moon as a pig, which was probably my favorite bit in the game, could be compared with Magical Makeover’s sense of getting a huge, unexpected result from trying something out of the blue”

Yeah, likewise. Also Dmitri’s seemingly-huge body of responses to your keyworded inquiries. I love that sense of stumbling into deep water.

“Btw I never found anything else about Matilda, but I think she’s the reason the countess hates you, thinking you killed her friend. It’s the best guess I have for what the “rumor” could be.”

Oh, interesting theory! Dmitri is so evasive about the rumor — “if it wasn’t this rumor, then it would have been another …”

ludzu:

“Oh, interesting theory! Dmitri is so evasive about the rumor — “if it wasn’t this rumor, then it would have been another …” “

I’ve noticed that, he has a lot to say but he likes to dance around the truth of the more vague subjects, which I guess makes sense thematically. Might be more likely that what the rumor itself doesn’t matter. Besides, I don’t know if my theory works so well now that I think about it; the countess did say she’s dueling you out of revenge, but that’s a pretty broad description. The one common thing between the rumor and Matilda’s murderer (she does imply she was murdered at least) is that we don’t know what/who both are.

“Yeah, likewise. Also Dmitri’s seemingly-huge body of responses to your keyworded inquiries. I love that sense of stumbling into deep water.”

Yes me too, that’s a good way of putting it!! The dress up parts in all three games are cool in how they lightly encourage you to try all your options for laughs or greater world detail, but as someone who wants to try <em>everything</em> those parts in Midnight were so rewarding.

I’m playing it again and only now did I remember the Red Death reference was from Poe’s story! I’m kinda embarrassed I couldn’t recognize it even though I knew it was a reference to something. I’m seeing more clearly now the fairy tale/masquerade stuff in Midnight Swordfight, compared to Secret Agent Cinder’s French Revolution take on Cinderella and Magical Makeover’s own internal fantasy lore, as a hodgepodge of references to Poe and Carroll (and probably others), meant to take familiar gothic and surreal elements and load them with a stranger thematic weight. Reading the description of the beast’s colossal size for example, it really strikes a chord and forces you to think about it outside the level of straight literary reference. And I’m pretty sure no one else thinks the Jabberwocky was THAT big in the poem, anyways.

Pseudavid:

Let’s see if I can put together some thoughts about Midnight Swordfight.

It’s obvious pointing that one of the most important characteristics of the game is its extreme artificiality. The language is baroque; the plot is a convoluted fantasy without the slightest hint of consistency; the setting is a mix of every available anachronism; the gameplay, finally, is the absolute opposite of the naturalistic, simulationist, world-model classic parser style.

I specially like this last point. I’ve sucked at parser for decades. My mind simply doesn’t work that way. I have problems thinking things to do, and often I also have problems finding the correct English word to do that (I didn’t start learning English until 9).

So I love games that ease that. MS, with its very limited verb list and its in-game and in-story help system, the script, completely solves the problem for me. I wonder if its solution is widely applicable to other games. The script in MS makes lots of sense in-story; it suggests that this is all a play (ask Dimitri about the script), which has an obvious connection with the dress-up mechanic, and it all fits great in the overall artificiality.

The script is immersion-breaking, but everything in the game is immersion-breaking. That’s why I wonder how this kind of thing could be done in a classical parser style, where the player expects to have a world (model) where all kinds of verbs can be consistently used with all kinds of nouns.

jake:

“I have problems thinking things to do, and often I also have problems finding the correct English word to do that (I didn’t start learning English until 9). … MS, with its very limited verb list and its in-game and in-story help system, the script, completely solves the problem for me. I wonder if its solution is widely applicable to other games.”

Right! I think I first heard of “Midnight. Swordfight.” in Emily short’s column “Text Adventures For People Who Hate Guessing The Verb“, which has a few other recommendations in that framework.

I went back to ask Dmitri about the playscript just now, and noticed another detail — he mentions that he doesn’t like to go to sleep, because he never wakes up. He just goes to sleep, dreams, then goes to sleep in that dream, and so on, nesting forever deeper in a dream-within-a-dream-within-etc. Meanhwile, the player only ever wakes up! The command to exit the swordfight is “wake up” but it’s also the command to return to the swordfight.

“The script is immersion-breaking, but everything in the game is immersion-breaking.”

Yeah, it’s great! It’s like Brecht :]

1 thought on “March 2017 Discussion”

  1. So I should be upfront about my biases here: I grew up playing parser games and they’re my platonic ideal of a text adventure. I’ve seen some things I’ve quite liked in Twine, and I actually think I prefer this month’s Twine selections to the parser-based “Midnight,” but in general I don’t feel truly satisfied until I’m typing commands.

    There were neat moments in “Midnight” but ultimately I wound up slightly disliking it. I don’t like fantasy or sci-fi fiction where I can’t figure out the internal logic and rules of the setting, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what the setting of “Midnight” even is. It’s a fancy party in what’s supposed to be the 19th century, but a lot more queer. There’s a digression involving space travel, there’s weird timey-wimey stuff, there’s a script dictating everything I do so maybe it’s a play? Something like “Counterfeit Monkey” where there are rules and a clearly articulated setting is much more fun for me, even if I like the queer stuff and learning what “angels on horseback” are.

    “Cinder” and “Makeover” were fun for what they were, but “Makeover” is very linear and “Cinder” is much more visually oriented. Neither of these qualities are intrinsically bad, but they make me feel a little deflated. Part of the fun of interactive fiction is the idea of many branching paths, whereas “Makeover” almost entirely depends on the first couple of choices you make. The tone of the writing is endearing and I found the setting much easier to imagine, but you don’t get to do all that much.

    “Cinder” was also clever, but one of my favorite things about IF is getting to read a creative response to creative input, or a fun description of my gruesome death when I make a horrible choice. Another bias I have is that I strongly prefer story to puzzles. I got frustrated trying to figure out “Cinder” and I don’t think I ever saw the ideal ending, though I did see multiple endings.

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