“Sooner or later you’re going to lose,” Bee announces.
Losing I can handle. I love a good forced failure. It’s this “you” business that’s giving me trouble.
“You are a junior spelling champion. Your parents have been teaching you at home since you were four. You’ve never wasted a moment in a conventional classroom.”
Hmm, nice to meet me. That’s who this “you” is supposed to be, right? Call me a narcissist, but I think this story is about me. This text will take me somewhere else, where I’ll impose my presence by making important decisions. Got it.
But sometimes it doesn’t really feel like Bee is about me. I’m not really playing the protagonist, per se, but living vicariously through her thought spasms, forcing myself to think with another brain. That’s not me begging moms to take me back to the salon for another expensive haircut. It’s someone else.
The you in Bee is smart. She’s training for a national spelling bee. She’s home-schooled. Her family is religious and conservative. Her thoughts are interesting. Her sister is funny.
Not halfway through the second page, I had already mapped out the ‘best’ way to approach this work. I would avoid any plot choices involving spelling practice. For dodging such dull endeavors, Bee would reward me with a more interesting story. By ignoring the part that you theoretically can’t win, I would win. For me, the opening sentence had immediately painted Bee‘s game system as an exercise in futility. I’m going to lose, so I should obviously avoid playing. Why doom this poor girl to pursue expertise in a fruitless exercise? And as an added bonus, I could make some high-minded commentary on the tenuous intersection between games and story. Inevitably, I would muse, the most gamified approach leaves you with the least compelling narrative.
Except here’s something: I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about. I don’t know what to make of interactive fiction. I only discovered it recently because of its uncertain participation in the independent videogame space, by way of the very same Emily Short’s write-up of a disturbing title called The Baron. Though I was disquieted and intrigued by The Baron, I didn’t immediately hunt down every piece of interactive prose I could download. I moved on. Lately though, the more I consider how this type of text operates, the more confused and fascinated I become with the process. I know something about games, and I know something about literature, but of this thing that straddles the line between the two, I know nothing.
But I’m trying to learn.
Murky protagonist characterization is an issue that videogames understand. Most main characters lead double lives as murderous psychopaths and pretty-nice-guys (once you get to know them). Because of this confusion, I often resort to “you” when I try to write about the experience of playing a videogame. First-person feels right in the past tense, when I’m relating my own interpretive process or narrating an unexpected anecdote. Then, there’s the third-person player, which often feels too distant and makes sentences stumble. You is a nice compromise between the two. For whatever reason, it feels the most natural. Interactive fiction lives in this twilight zone, the in-between space of the second person present.
“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.“
Text adventures, like the aptly named Adventure, were highly influential in the gaming sphere when they arrived in the mid-70s. Today, they serve a devoted, niche community. In a recent interview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Cadre (Photopia and Endless, Nameless) said he doesn’t enjoy playing IF because he finds the process “exhausting.” It seems absurd that someone who writes interactive stories can’t stand playing them, but I understand Cadre’s complaint. Traditional, parser-based IF involves typing commands into a prompt. The parser, which resembles a limited search engine, decides whether or not the computer comprehends typed commands like “go north” or “stroke moon” or “use spellbook on gerbil.” Parser-based IF can be frustrating because it’s impossible to make airtight, and if a work lacks polish or players prove uncooperative, the fragile fourth wall frequently topples.
Now, many interfaces exist to tell interactive tales, though parser-based IF probably still shares the most overlap with games. The trial and error conversation between player and parser elicits a strange sense of exploration. As with most videogames, you’re barred access from a bulk of the content until you achieve a certain interface mastery. IF juggernaut Andrew Plotkin, who has called interactive fiction “the first *hit* videogame genre,” champions the parser as the fundamental mechanic of IF. According to Plotkin, it “draws the player *into* the game world in a distinct and powerful manner. You can’t skim the text or skimp on imagining the situation, because the situation is your only guide to what to try next.” In other words, a text adventure without a parser isn’t really IF, but something else entirely.
Bee is not parser-based IF, nor is it simply a plugged-in, choose-your-own-adventure story. Short wrote Bee on the Varytale platform, which operates “somewhere on the spectrum between stateful CYOA (like Choice of Games) and quality-based narrative (like Echo Bazaar).” Stories developed on Varytale let you navigate their text through a labyrinth of links, while the system tracks a handful of conditions that may or may not be displayed. Your options depend on prior choices, so you can’t go to the salon with Mrs. Barron unless you’ve visited her home, and you can’t practice Arabic loan words before you’ve gotten down the basics of synonyms and phonetics. The Varytale format fits Short like a glove. It highlights her confident command of interactive interface without hamstringing her crisp, lucid prose.
My spellophobic playthrough ended quickly. I didn’t get anywhere near the national competition. My shameful badge was that of the lowly “local spelling champion.” But at least I had lived!
Initially, I made many stereotypical assumptions about the characters in Bee. I assumed there’s no way this girl wants to spend most of her time with spelling flash cards. Her parents are clearly using the bee competition to stroke their egos and show off in front of their claustrophobic homeschooling community.
The thing is, you hardly spend any of your time spelling anything in Short’s narratives. Bee is more interested in language as an idea rather than a mechanical exercise. “Practice” largely entails imagining places that words can take you. Spelling is transcendental. Spelling is escapism. The character’s love of language simultaneously serves as game system and character trait. It allows her to travel to exotic locales, to feel worldly and cultured. Lying face down on the carpet, smothered by oppressive loneliness, this girl bathes herself in words. For her, spelling isn’t just another family ritual or prayer at the frigid altar of Practicality. It is her ritual. Her coping mechanism. Her antidote for loneliness. Her sense of self.
Bee is engrossing because it never resorts to explicit, over-the-top, “beady-eyed religious fundamentalist” characterizations. The weirdness of the narrator’s environment reveals itself with subtlety. The characters’ religious fundamentalism is a matter-of-fact, even endearing, part of their complex personalities, preventing them from being reduced to one-note caricatures. The parents are devout, controlling and paranoid, but never cruel. The annoying but beloved younger sister is allowed, if not always encouraged, to be strange and to draw pictures of strange things.
Most of my assumptions about Bee were wrong. In my second run, I spent more time with Latin and German roots, and the story rewarded me with more opportunities for social exploration. Participating in the game system’s linguistic universe contributed to the longevity of the narrative and, for the most part, this system deftly reconciles the conflict of interest between experience and productivity.
But just as role-playing the diligent competitive speller bought more time, it led to repetition. Passages began to show up multiple times, and I ended up skimming, searching for something I hadn’t already read. I’m torn over whether or not to call this element a flaw. Though the repetition removed me from the experience, it also contributed to the story’s verisimilitude. After all, you, I and this girl live repetitive lives. We arm ourselves for an unpredictable world with artificial schedules and base new behaviors on past experiences. We want to know what to expect, though we think we crave novelty. To some extent, we all take refuge in the arms of our routines. Bee offers us “new things” but reminds us of the psychological roots common to humanity.
(I saw Bee at Free Indie Games)