This is the second in a series of reviews of interactive digital fiction. Other reviews: Meanwhile.
The Play is an interactive short story by Deirdra Kiai developed using the Undum web fiction game engine. It was entered into the 17th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition where it placed third (most of the entries are old-school text adventures).
The story concerns last-minute preparation for a community theater production. All sorts of things are breaking down around you, the director: missing cast members, collapsing set pieces, and unresolved interpersonal conflicts. The story is in the second person, as is common in interactive works. While author is female, and I am female, it took me a little while to realize that the protagonist is also female; I’m used to interactive works being written by and for men. The character’s gender is critical; the story is ultimately about how women succeed or fail when playing a leadership role.
The Play is written as a web application (using HTML5) with a story canvas that expands vertically as choices are unwrapped. The text sometimes can constrict as well, when the user has chosen a direction that can’t be reversed.
Design elements distinguish story narration from description. Text in a white box tells the reader what is currently happening on-stage:
Choices are represented as hyperlinks. Some of the choices expand the narrative, providing background and context:
If I click on “James Dough”, the hyperlink disappears and background information is inserted into the narrative.
In other cases, you are presented with an obvious decision tree:
If I choose the last option, the entire block of text with the choices vanishes, and the narration continues as if no other option had been presented:
One thing I like about this approach is that the result is a complete, seamless story. If you scroll back through your play session, you can read it straight through as a traditional narrative.
There are right and wrong choices for you to make; you can end the story with a more or less successful dramatic production. Rather than points or achievements, your “score” is represented by the relative annoyance of the actors in your company:
Very often a choice that makes one of the members happy will fluster or annoy another; learning how to strike the correct balance is rewarding, though it means often not making the “right” choice (which is the point of the story — the player must make a lot of compromises).
Interactive fiction authors measure whether a particular game is “fair,” meaning whether a player can reasonably guess the outcome of a particular choice. A game in which you open a door and are instantly beheaded isn’t fair; it would be more “fair” to be stopped as you approach and notice a gleaming guillotine hanging above the doorframe. Though I read through The Play a number of times I never got to the most successful ending; I’d like the game to be somewhat more forgiving in helping readers navigate to the desirable conclusion, especially since it’s not always obvious whether a particular choice will have a positive or negative outcome. In that sense the story is somewhat unfair, but the consequence of a wrong choice is just having to replay, which only takes a few minutes.