I haven’t reviewed any interactive fiction here in a while, partly because it’s hard to make myself write much of anything, but also because I go through phases where I’m interested in it and phases when I’m not. In recent years the “interested” phases have coincided with the yearly IF competition but recently I played Gregory Weir’s The Bryant Collection.
Gregory Weir released The Bryant Collection on April Fool’s Day, 2009 and regretted it in the morning. A lot of people assumed the game was a joke. (It was a while before I got around to playing it myself. April Fool’s jokes spring from unfunny people concocting a forced semblance of comedy out of a misplaced sense of obligation. I’ve never seen an April Fool’s joke that made me laugh, or feel anything but tired.)
Still, April 1st wasn’t a totally inappropriate release date. The Bryant Collection is the IF equivalent of Stanislaw Lem’s reviews of nonexistent novels or Steve Aylett’s biography of an imaginary SF writer. The conceit is that, at a garage sale, Weir came across the personal effects of Laura Bryant, a distant cousin about whom no one knew much except that she’d spent her career as a middle school English teacher. In her spare time Bryant wrote “story worlds,” pages of notes resembling a role playing game scenario: one person described the situation in the story world, the second described an action, and the first person consulted the notes for a response.
And, hey, darned if the syntax Bryant used for her story worlds wasn’t suspiciously similar to the Inform 7 interactive fiction language! So we have five games in one, supposedly adapted from Bryant’s story worlds: two environments (“Going Home Again” and “The End of the World”), two conversations (“Morning in the Garden” and “Undelivered Love Letter”), and a puzzle (“The Tower of Hanoi,” which is not really a Tower of Hanoi).
“Going Home Again” is the kind of thing novice IF authors write when they’re learning a language: a simulated house, a few objects per room with basic descriptions to read, and nothing to do but look. Thirty seconds and you’ve seen everything. “The End of the World” organizes the text by time instead of space: you’re not examining objects but witnessing a series of events in a single location. The Player Character (PC) has a few objects to manipulate, but no ability to change the outcome of the game. Weir is more interested in creating a mood; in the midst of an apocalypse, the PC’s focus on, and enjoyment of, his lunch—an ordinary lunch, but the last he’ll ever eat—is almost a koan.
Of the conversations, “Morning in the Garden” (in which Eve is tempted by the serpent) appears more limited but is ultimately more satisfying: the PC’s responses are limited to YES or NO, but the choice matters. “Undelivered Love Letter,” about a man’s final meeting with his ex-girlfriend (named X, appropriately), is a freeform conversation using the ASK and TELL commands familiar to IF players, and you’d think it would be wide open—but it’s almost impossible to come up with a question that provokes any response from X. Most players’ experience of “Undelivered Love Letter” will be a series of awkward pauses. Which might be appropriate.
“The Tower of Hanoi” is a clever puzzle with only to barest wisp of story to provide context. As in “Undelivered Love Letter” there were moments when I couldn’t figure out what to type—not because I didn’t know what to do, but because I simply couldn’t figure out what command would get the PC from one room to the next. It’s a convention of interactive fiction that the player moves the PC by typing compass directions. This bothers some people—who in reality has such an infalliable internal compass? But struggling with “The Tower of Hanoi” is an object lesson in why, in this case, IF needs to break with reality. First, it’s quicker to type N (for north) than GO TO THE SHED. This might seem a small thing, but it’s a major annoyance when you’re trying to play the game on the tiny virtual keyboard of an iPod Touch. More important, the convention means a player who just wants to move around will never have to wonder what to type. At one point in “The Tower of Hanoi” I had to consult a walkthrough to get from one room to the next—the command that took me to one room wouldn’t take me back in the other direction!
Taken in isolation, these games are slight, and have occasional problems. But The Bryant Collection isn’t really about the games. It’s about Laura Bryant.
Each “story world” is dated to the year it was written, and before each game begins the player is shown a quotation supposedly taken from one of Bryant’s letters. “The Tower of Hanoi” (1978), for instance, begins with “It seems to me that however hard people try to protect something, there’s always someone willing to try harder to take it away.”
The juxtaposition of the story worlds, the dates, and the quotations from Laura Bryant’s letters encourages the reader to draw connections between the stories and her life. The earliest story world is “Going Home Again,” about a student returning from college. Was it written when Laura returned home from college herself—is this her parents’ home? The accompanying quotation reads “I had some men come to cut down that big dead tree in the front yard today. It was an eyesore, but now I’m sorry to see it gone.” These are the words of a home owner—did Laura eventually return home to stay?
“Morning in the Garden” (“When it comes to any temptation, the guilt afterward is never as bad as the longing beforehand”) was written just one year before “Undelivered Love Letter” (“The weird thing is that even though I thought it would never stop hurting at the time, now I just look back and miss that pain”). Was Laura tempted by a lover, who then left her? Could the woman in “Undelivered Love Letter” be a self portrait?
“The End of the World,” from 1982, is the latest story world, and the quotation reads “It’s tough knowing that it’s coming. But I think I’ve made peace with it. Children are supposed to outlive their parents, right?” It’s easy to imagine Laura creating this vision of utter collapse—the end of everything, cities vaporized—as an outlet for her grief. In this light the PC’s last meal gains new significance. It’s the kind of lunch a mother would pack for a child.
The Bryant Collection’s major flaw is a lack of closure. Once you’ve made their way through every story world… nothing else happens. You’re dumped back into the same central space, looking at the same box of posessions. The game doesn’t really end, and it’s easy to feel you’ve missed something. A proper ending might have tied the game together and encouraged players to look at The Bryant Collection as a whole. It doesn’t matter that these story worlds are one-note games. The Bryant Collection is an exploration of context. The real story is told in the gaps between the story worlds. It’s a portrait in negative space.