Friday, October 2, 2015

Birdland (a review)

"Birdland" is a web based interactive fiction by Brendan Patrick Hennessy, entered in the 2015 interactive fiction competition.  

The cover art is a distant flock of birds and block letter title against a red sunset.  The blurb is short:  

“Fourteen-year-old Bridget's summer camp experience takes a turn for the bizarre when her otherworldly bird dreams start bleeding into reality.”

I chose to play this game out of my own nostalgia for summer camp.  More about this after the break

The story begins with a letter from Bridget's parents.

"Trust us: It may all seem miserable now but when you're an adult you're going to look back on this as one of the best summers of your life. You only get to be 14 once, after all. And don't forget that you're in one of the most beautiful places on Earth!"

I attended many camps over the years, including several as an adult staff member.  My parents never gave me the misinformed advice above, but I have heard this from others.  It's not true.  My personal experiences varied, from the best of times to the worst, but I certainly didn’t have to wait until I was an adult to discern which were which.  A fourteen year old knows what happiness means and what it isn’t.

(Next screen).  Nice graphic images of the characters.  A hypertext mechanism for advancing the story.
(Next screen)

"DEPUTY: (monotonously) State your job title.
YOU: Sheriff.
DEPUTY: And what is the function of a sheriff?"

Despite my promising first impressions, I’m starting to worry here.  I don’t want to read adverbs (monotonously).  The characterization should come from the dialogue.  In this case, my deputy is being characterized as a dull nitwit, for not knowing what a sheriff is.

The first dream ends. I’m worried about the writing quality, but the game mechanism shows some promise.  The game tells me which attributes I’ve enhanced or diminished as a result of my dream choices.   I’m told those choices will affect my waking experience. 

Now I’m at the canoe dock on July 13.  Finally, the dialogue alone reveals a character.  My canoe instructor sounds like Bill Murray.  The canoe instructor makes a reference to the Karate Kid…The protagonist doesn’t recognize the film reference (“Jaden Smith” the instructor explains).  This puts an age on both characters, but makes me feel old.  For the love of God, Ralph Macchio was the Karate Kid.

 (19 days left of camp…this could be a long game, so I’m going to break from my real-time commentary and just play the game.)
That was a long game.  Unfortunately the weaknesses in the dialogue I saw in the first chapter did not resolve themselves.  I did not develop an emotional connection to the main character or her friends.  Then, as the story veered into cheap teen romantic pulp, I became uncomfortably aware that I am not the target audience. I’m just glad the girls didn’t start talking about their periods.

I mentioned before that the game’s mechanism seemed promising… that my dream choices would affect my waking choices.  But after a while, that also became tedious.  Player stats are a trope borrowed from role playing games.  Stats don’t work well in a story that should be about emotional development.  Ultimately, the role-playing choices available when I had “elevated stats” seemed no better or worse than the default options.  I had no real agency.

A lot of time went into writing this thing.  I admire that effort.  But it wasn’t for me.

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