Update: Half of this review is now outdated because the complete version of Bee for dendry has been released. I still agree with this review, and if anything have gained a new appreciation for Bee from having taken a small part in its development. There are a lot of intricacies in how the story is told, and how it uses the medium of interactive fiction. Bee is amazing and I recommend it for anyone interested in narrative design or just a meaningful slice-of-life story.
I had the good fortune of being able to play Bee before Varytale disappeared from the internet. It was one of the first pieces of IF I played/read, and was part of what made me fall in love with interactive fiction. Unfortunately, Bee in its original form is no longer online; the Dendry version is playable only up to a point. Even so, I think it is well worth playing in its current form.
Comparing the original Varytale version to the Dendry version that is currently online, it is apparent that there is a lot missing. Dendry does not have the visible stat display or character lists, which makes the choice process almost akin to fumbling in the dark. The only indicator of time are the occasional Christmas, Easter, and Halloween events. In addition, the Dendry version does not have the ending scenes (I checked the code; the endings are not present), so instead of ending with the final spelling bee, the story just fizzles out once a certain time has been reached.
Still, I think the Dendry version should be played, if only to experience Emily Short's writing. The scenes that do exist are excellently written, and you can get up to the first spelling bee with zero issues. Also, since the code is available, it is theoretically possible to fix at least some of the problems, like adding stat displays back in...
There's already been a lot said about Bee's story in the reviews here. It really resonated with me, as someone who competed in academic competitions when I was younger. The protagonist has a sense of alienation from both her own family and from the broader American culture as a whole, and she has trouble relating to others and uses spelling as a coping mechanism. Through the player's choices, she can become rebellious, or participate in the spelling bee to the fullest, going all the way to the nationals before getting runner-up (this scene is not in the Dendry version). Even as the player subtly molds her personality, the current of alienation always remains.
The primary way the story is structured is through the progression of time. At each "turn", the player is given a choice of three randomly chosen storylets, each of which is a mini-CYOA scene. Some storylets have higher priority than others, and most are dependent on either a specific time of year or on certain stats. A lot of storylets repeat, especially the spelling practice scenes, which does get kind of tiresome after a while.
Dendry itself has probably become my favorite HTML interactive fiction framework, and my recent game, which was kind of/very inspired by Bee, happens to use Dendry.
RIP Varytale :(
Solarium is one of my favorite pieces of interactive fiction, or any fiction really. It's another of those stories that I find myself returning to over and over. Every time I read it, I feel like I discover something new, another layer to the story or a reference I didn't understand. If anyone hasn't yet, you might want to play it for yourself without reading this review; my description won't do it justice.
Insofar that Solarium is primarily about any one thing, it's about the horrors of the Cold War. In their quest for supremacy over the Soviet Union, Americans turned to esotericism, with a magical archaeological discovery that promises to protect them from nuclear retaliation, thus breaking the game theory of Mutually Assured Destruction and allowing a first strike. Of course it doesn't work that way; actually they awakened an ancient evil that wanted to destroy the world. And it did. But that's just the surface; there's a lot more to the story.
Solarium is a hypertext story told nonlinearly and nonchronologically. It is a mystery story where the mystery is from the perspective of the reader, to find out what happened and why. There is a root node taking place "after mutually assured destruction" and many flashback segments (can I call them storylets?), each associated with a substance, unlocked by going through other flashbacks (which are treated as alchemical rituals). Through these flashbacks, the player discovers the history of the protagonist and their relation with the events that lead up to the nuclear apocalypse.
There are two endings decided by a final choice at the end. It makes sense; everything that comes before is flashback to prepare the player for this final decision. Spoiler description of the plot and ending: (Spoiler - click to show)The plot takes the cold war and moves it to cosmic dimensions. The protagonist is the reincarnation of an ancient godlike figure, and both his lover(?) Annalise and the Archon (the spirit contained inside the magical amulet) are also reincarnations, playing out an ancient cosmic drama between good and evil. Their bodies are no matter; the Archon takes over the president's body, and the protagonist is reincarnated as men and women, including a priest and a soldier. All of them are endlessly lonely through reincarnation, and the Archon tries to attract the attention of the Creator by acting up, by causing so much mayhem and evil that God is forced to notice him. Meanwhile Annalise is as pure good as possible; it's implied that she is the reincarnation of Jesus. The ending is with Annalise dying permanently, and the protagonist can either join her in death or keep on living. In the latter ending, eventually the protagonist finds the Archon's amulet again, because they're so lonely and need a companion.
The game is littered with a complex array of references, from literature to religion to real-life Cold War history complete with actual documents. Maybe it's only impressive to a relatively uncultured person like myself, but I thought it was incredible, and made me look up a lot of things on Wikipedia, like the real life Project Solarium, the use of LSD by the CIA, Gnostic religions, and the history of alchemy.
More generally, the writing is incredible (in my opinion). Every sentence just feels perfect. I don't know how to talk about it without gushing. The nonlinearity and gating are usually well thought out, and work to pace the story and control how and when the player accesses certain content. Most of it is pretty easy to navigate, but there were a few moments where I wasn't sure how to proceed. But it turns out that some storylets can or have to be repeated multiple times after getting new substances.
Venus Meets Venus is a linear hypertext story, as is described in the opening passages (see title of review). One of the links in each passage always advances the story, while the other links function as asides or footnotes. It is a story of a relationship between two women, Lynn (the narrator) and Macy, and their struggles through sexuality and politics. Both of them are normal, flawed people (Lynn much more flawed, seemingly). The writing is excellent throughout. The language can be overwrought sometimes, but there are so many memorable lines. While there are no "branches" in the narrative, it feels much more interactive than it actually is. Links function as pacing and a way to explore Lynn's thought processes. She is someone who feels as if she lives on autopilot, and always picks the worst choice at any moment.
This was one of the first twine things I had ever played, and it was one of the reasons I became interested in interactive narrative in the first place. It was really influential for me.
Personal notes: (Spoiler - click to show)I played this game during a time when I was starting to come to the realization that I was trans and queer or something like that. It was one of the first stories I read that featured a literal non-metaphorical trans woman as a main character, and treated her as someone who was basically a normal person, and was someone who could be desirable. For better or for worse I saw bits of myself in both of the main characters. I'm not sure the story would have resonated with me as much if I hadn't been able to personally identify with the experiences described.
This game feels like the culmination of the genre of twines that started with howling dogs. It might be overstating to call it the apex of twine, but that's how I personally feel.
SPY INTRIGUE is a story with many layers to it, and somehow it works on each of these layers as well as all together. At the beginning it seems to be a wacky, vaguely sexually charged spy adventure. Then you die and see a story about mental illness, gender, relationships, living in A Society, and all that, all excellently written. But deeper into the spy missions, the themes wrap back around into full earnestness in a way that's difficult for me to describe. I usually bounce off video game comedy, but the humor in this game is genuinely funny. (Spoiler - click to show)For example, the best updog joke in video games. Hearing the word "mumps" still makes me want to laugh in a socially inappropriate manner; I wish I could talk about "SPY MUMPS" irl without being ostracized.
I love the interface too, especially the story map, which shows the current node and all the nodes leading out of the current node, annotated with colors for whether they lead to death, an aside, or story progress.
(Spoiler - click to show)One of the segments, the death scene where the protagonist tries on their parent's clothing, really got to me in a deeply personal way; I still go back just to read this one passage.