October 7th 2016
IFComp 2016 Capsule Reviews: The Little Lifeform that Could, The Shoe Dept.
For these two pieces, I'm writing shorter capsule reviews. See my initial post for info on my approach to writing about those.
October 2nd 2016
IFComp Review: 500 Apocalypses
500 Apocalypses is essentially a stochastic novel, a large collection of loosely-connected vignettes meant to be read in a random order. Its blurb should probably come with a broad content warning for mature and disturbing themes, which I am bringing up here because I’ll be discussing some of it.
Each vignette one is an impression of the death of some alien civilization, ranging from the wry (a society that dies because they just never figured out the wheel), to the poignant (various emotive glimpses into lives at the edge of their worlds), to the aggressively miserable (a hopeless survivor carries around their cancer-ridden partner around the wasteland on a wheelchair, trading her body for painkillers to ease her suffering). The stuff in the latter category is only a fraction of the content, but I found that after a while it suffuses everything. To me it seems too much like trafficking in the sort of misery tourism that stuff like Threads is built on. The entire piece seems built to be a tonal melange, but “saddest shit” is an overpowering flavor. Eventually, even the wry or absurd or thoughtful entries take on the faint smell of misery porn. It’s as though all the different vignettes were uncovered food in the same fridge, slowly taking in one another’s flavors.
It is, after all, about the end of the world; says so right on the title. About the world ending over and over again and in different ways, all of them unhappy in unique ways. The problem with structuring that as a collage of vignettes is that it’s all build up and no conclusion. Maybe there’s an ending to 500 Apocalypses, but I didn’t want to stick around to find it, and the piece is very clearly structured to dispel the idea that there is an ending. And so, reading it is like going down an Escher staircase into gloom; there’s no point of catharsis or release to all the pathos, there’s just more pathos. Even the implicit ending that every apocalypse has, in which the suffering is finally over as death comes for everyone, is denied the reader: Click through and read another entry. There’s another apocalypse two clicks away. There’s 500 of them. The abstract field of dots it uses as an index to its entries comes across as a minefield: How long until it presents you with something aggressively unpleasant and unsettling that you were unprepared for?
The harsh, dissonant tonal shifts feel like a cheap shot: You can go from a wry or absurdist entry to one that is terrifyingly miserable, and every time I can hear the gearbox scraping inside my head. Eventually I learned to just expect the worse from every entry, which blunted the subtler poignancy that a lot of entries have. It feels like it could have done with a narrower band of tones, like it should be playing a chord or a scale rather than mashing its hands all over the keyboard.
This is not to say that the different entries are disjointed. Far from it; they have currents of theme running through them. Many of the vignettes fall under the rubric of body horror; many others fall under body discomfit, quietly reminding the reader that they are about alien lives situated in alien bodies only hinted at. Re- and deconstruction of the body. The relationship between a civilization’s semantics and its infrastructure. So does sex, as is obligatory in literature that is about death. Often, masturbation, reproduction, and the regulation of physical desire, make appearances.
In the end, it’s hard to dispute that 500 Apocalypses seems important, and it’s undeniably well-written and affecting. But I’m not sure if that equates to good. The affect, for me, is mostly of creeping nihilistic misery, or maybe lingering anxiety. And this puts me in a bit of a bind; I’d be a pretty poor critic if I could only appreciate art that makes me feel good, but at the same time I eventually came to find this work unpleasant. Not artistically flawed, not ill-conceived, not badly written, but unpleasant. And if the goal was to create revulsion, even dread, then it succeeds at that; it’s not ineffective, even if I’m not fond of the effect. But I’m not sure it’s necessarily correct to say that being effective is the same thing as being good, either. If the question I’m supposed to be answering is whether I like this, well, the answer is no; I do not like this one bit. But I can’t tell you how much that matters, or if it matters at all.
My bottom line with 500 Apocalypses is that I don’t feel better off for having read it. But there is a lot to it, and there is definitely a fascination that it exerts, morbid though it may be. There are fascinating and powerful ideas there, but I’m not a partisan of the idea that the best way to get those across is by causing the reader distress; and, inasmuch as fiction writing can be distressing, I find 500 Apocalypses pretty distressing. It is, above all else, a work of horror fiction. But without the focusing of a singular narrative, it feels too much like touching the third rail. It’s horror without enough of a direction. It doesn’t have the cathartic, clarifying quality that good horror has; instead, it’s just mounting dread without release.
Or maybe it’s not so much that the meal is overdone, but rather that I choked on it. Maybe this is just a singularly affecting piece of work that I encountered in the wrong mental state. There’s too much subjectivity here, far too much for my liking. I think that people who want to understand will have to play this for themselves. And maybe they should; maybe this is an important piece, one that we will be coming back to years from now to talk about hypertext. But I can scarcely recommend something that doesn’t pass this basic test: do I feel better off for having read this?
Grade: Not recommended.
September 30th 2016
IFComp '16: Review Notes
The Interactive Fiction Competition is once again upon us; the deadline for submissions is today, in fact.
This year, I’m busy. But I did promise I would make an effort to review some of the games. As is tradition, before we see the list of comp games, I thought I should take a moment to go over my approach to reviewing these, partly to set expectations, and partly because no collection of comp reviews is complete without a self-important essay talking about the correct way to write reviews.
I am writing impressions, not full reviews. Unless I’m really taken with something, don’t expect 2000-word rundown of what it’s about. I might group some pieces into smaller roundups of capsule reviews, even.
I am probably not going to get through the entire comp. The number of entrants last year was huge, and unless an enormous drop-off happens this year, it’s unlikely I’ll have the time to go over everything.
I am doing this in no particular order. If your title or blurb really grabs me I’ll probably get to your thing first, but otherwise I will be playing things in a random order.
I will be following the two-hour rule for judging, but I won’t guarantee it for reviews. Which is to say, if I want to keep playing past two hours, I’ll mark down a judging grade for your piece and get back to it, and review it after I feel like I’m done with it.
As a final side note - I might be covering IFComp elsewhere as well, in which case I’ll be forgoing writing about certain games in here in favor of that, though I will probably go back and write some additional notes to cover stuff that I didn’t think was valuable in a review aimed at a more general public.
Review scores are bad, but I think a grade is useful for summing up how I feel about something, especially for people who don’t want to read the full review because they don’t have the time or want to go in blind. So I’m going to be putting grades into one of three categories:
- Exceptional: this piece is an instant classic that everyone should play;
- Recommended: this is a good piece doing interesting things;
- Not recommended: this piece is either significantly flawed, or doing something that will only appeal to fans of a particular subgenre.
There are four additional categories that I don’t really expect to encounter, but want to bring up ahead of time for the sake of thoroughness:
- Broken: I wasn’t able to view most of the content of this piece, or the effect was seriously hampered, because of technical issues; ie, I wasn’t able to really play this. I’ll probably just write that as a side note to another review.
- Objectionable: This piece seems to espouse, support, or normalize a viewpoint that I find deeply objectionable (eg racism, misogyny), which for me overrides its technical or literary merit, if any. I might write at length about it, or I might not, but the bottom line is I wouldn’t recommend it to someone without a very large caveat.
- Category Error: Even though I promote a fairly broad definition of interactive fiction, this piece doesn’t seem to belong here.
- Won’t review: For some other reason, I can’t or won’t review this, for instance if it’s exclusive to some platform I don’t have access to.
I am not interested in how well something meets the (sometimes-arbitrary) trad-if standards of whether something is interactive enough, “polished” enough, or IF enough. Instead, I’m interested in what a piece has to say, and how effective it is in saying it, in terms of its content and interaction. I’m not interested in re-litigating whether dynfic or hybrid IF are interactive fiction (they are), but I am interested in whether a particular story benefits from a given format. I’m not concerned with the (somewhat calcified) standards of world model architecture that have been extremely prevalent in criticism within the IF community over the years, but I am interested in the ways the parser, trait-based narrative, and cybertext toolkits can be semantically productive.
This isn’t to say that I am giving traditional parser games a free pass on “mimesis” or whatever, but it does mean that things which are deliberately deviating from this construction will be evaluated on its own terms, and understood in those terms.
I’m particularly interested, these days, in procedurality, prose generation, narrative systems, and dynamic fiction, so you can expect to see a little more attention paid to these subjects or to pieces that give me an excuse to write about them. This isn’t to say that I like those pieces better; just that they happen to fall under my current theoretical and critical priorities. Particularly, I’m looking forward to seeing what people do with hypertext interaction, which seems to fall quite well under the IFComp’s purview.
I took part in the IFcomp last year, and I know it can be a bit of a harrowing experience. I know that it can be a twitchy tug between feeling like you haven’t gotten the attention or recognition you merit, and feeling blown out by too much scrutiny. So it’s absolutely not my goal to shame anyone for the work they put into the comp in good faith, which is why I’m trying to stay away from stack ranking people. Yes, some pieces are going to stand out, and some are going to not succeed. But it’s not my goal here to snark, or to act as a gatekeeper of who is worthy of being in the space.
This is, secretly, the real goal of the rating system: I might give some pieces little more than a sentence and a rating. I’m not sure if that is a good balance to strike between staying totally silent about something because I don’t have anything too positive to say, and writing a full-on negative review (and I reserve the right to write negative reviews if I think they would be interesting or useful). But I’m not trying to turn anyone’s creative failure into entertainment, here, which I think is the standard you have to apply. At the same time, I do want to at least mention every game I get around to playing.
Above everything, I implore authors to remember: Your value as a person is totally orthogonal to your creative success. This is not a competition to determine how much you matter or how good you are.