IF Comp 2015: Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is on. Go play the games! And vote. To be a judge and have your votes counted, you only need to (a) not be an author of any game in the IFComp, (b) not vote on any games you might have tested, and (c) submit votes for at least five games. There are, I believe, a record number of games this year; one is very much encouraged to play and vote even if getting through all the games is – as it is for me – a daunting endeavor.

The illustrious Emily Short, as usual, is writing interesting reviews of many of the games. This year, she is also soliciting review swaps to encourage cross-pollenating the review space and interested communities in general (and, I would assume, to add to her little black book of interesting people and/or games). I’m revivifying my mostly-dead content-writing fingers (sorry, Sam, you may not be able to read this until 2016) to take part in this exercise. I’ve asked her to review Tales from the Borderlands from Telltale Games, and I’m going to review (at least) Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box.

Edit: My take is this game is worth playing despite a slow start. Stop reading now if you want to play it yourself before reading all my words.

This is not really a spoil-able game; there are a few surprises, but I doubt I would have enjoyed myself any less for knowing what they were ahead of time; it is a (virtually) story-free puzzle-box game. It took me about forty absent-minded minutes to reach the end; it’s impossible to get stuck or even to undo any significant amount of progress. I consulted the walkthrough after I finished, and found out that I had, quite by accident, stumbled on what is identified as the shortest route through one of the puzzles; I went back and played around with that section a little bit more to see what I had missed out on.

I spent the first few minutes somewhat unengaged. The environment is scarce, the descriptions short. Short and sparse writing isn’t a criticism – I find myself skimming long blocks of Lovecraftian prose much more often than I find myself chewing them carefully, extracting every nuance of meaning. It isn’t even really a reason for a lack of engagement. Some of my favorite writing is sparse and minimal; Neil Gaiman’s Nicholas Was…, William Carlos Williams’ This Is Just To Say, apocryphally-Hemingway’s six-word story. What those works have that I found lacking here are early hooks (or, in the case of the six-word story, the promise of a morsel so small that it will take actual work to avoid swallowing it whole).

Let me speak aside for a moment and note with interest that Nicholas Was… and This Is Just To Say (and, with only a slight technicality, For sale: baby shoes, never worn) all have titles that are inextricably part of the work. This is a technique that I don’t recall ever having seen in a work of IF, but I find the most immediately engaging tend to pull me directly into the interaction through the blurb at least; the blurb for Variety Box doesn’t even feature in the work as I played it, though it was promising enough to get me to play on its strength alone:

It’s the latest model, and it would really like to play with you.

However, IFComp is really enough of a hook on its own for me to forgive an initial scarcity of engaging writing or content – at least for a few minutes – and as soon as the wit of the interaction became apparent (after almost too many turns of a crank), I was delighted.

The variety box contains a large number of pre-ordained (really? (yes, though it pretends otherwise in some sections)) interactions, chained in a largely linear fashion from end to end, with a tiny bit of structure to knit distant interactions together. There are self-aware moments, meta moments, a few little humanizing touches, and one apparent fourth-wall breakage that only served to strengthen the feeling of whimsy that permeated the majority of the experience.

It’s built around a very simple set of interactions: examining or using (charmingly, “UNDERTAKE TO INTERACT WITH”ing – but abbreviated to “U” for sanity) objects…or waiting. And that’s pretty much it, and that’s all you need; it’s got a feel very much like a text version of Windosill. I poked at things, looked at things, and poked at them some more; sometimes things did new stuff and sometimes they did the same stuff over and over, indicating I was on a nonproductive path. Nonproductive but interesting; even the failure cases of “this action will not progress the exploration of the box” had amusing little responses.

I don’t feel like it was missing a narrative reason for being. It’s a glorified desk toy, something to poke at and be amused by, and it lives up admirably well to this purpose. A story would have felt tacked on, though there are just enough setting elements to give it some small weight in the world.

It also has the distinction of being the first uplifting game from the IFComp I’ve played this year. There are a lot of explorations of mental illness and depression of one sort or another, it seems like – or I just gravitated to them – and it was a real pleasure and a relief to sit down and poke at a toy that, while it got petulant and growled at me a little bit, was nonetheless a purely positive experience.

All in all, I had fun, and I was sad when I ran out of things to do.

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