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About the Story
The story of a home-schooled girl preparing to compete in the national spelling bee, dealing with various small crises with family and friends, and gradually coming to terms with the clash of subcultures involved in belonging to a family like hers.
Nominee, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing - 2012 XYZZY Awards
What's so inspirational about this story is the compelling realism from the characters. Initially, I found it somewhat difficult to relate to them: I know next to nothing about the US education system, don't 'get' spelling bees (apparently they're a big thing over there), and certainly can't put myself in the position of a home-schooled American girl with a super-religious family background! But before long, I was starting to really feel for the character and beginning to see how her life fit together.
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Games That Exist
Parsing Interaction in Emily Short's Bee
Bee is engrossing because it never resorts to explicit, over-the-top, 'beady-eyed religious fundamentalist' characterizations. The weirdness of the narrator's environment reveals itself with subtlety. The characters' religious fundamentalism is a matter-of-fact, even endearing, part of their complex personalities, preventing them from being reduced to one-note caricatures. The parents are devout, controlling and paranoid, but never cruel. The annoying but beloved younger sister is allowed, if not always encouraged, to be strange and to draw strange things.
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XYZZY Awards blog
Reviews of Best Writing Nominees (Yoon Ha Lee)
Upon reflection, the writing in Bee is quite adroit, and my initial dislike for it is probably a matter of idiosyncratic player reaction. I imagine that it worked just fine for many players. But that first reaction to the early prose was so difficult to overcome that, by the game's end, I was more relieved than sad to see it go.
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XYZZY Awards blog
Reviews of Best Writing Nominees (Paul O'Brian)
Most every passage of the game is a pleasure to read, and a few are nothing short of sublime and beautiful. As usual for Short, she accomplishes a great deal with subtlety, understatement, and concision. Her trademark sentence fragments are sparser here than in her parser-based games (probably due to the lack of room descriptions), but used to good effect where they appear. Where she outdoes herself is in characterization. The prose feels deeply inhabited by the main character's point of view, in a way that is clear-eyed enough to let us understand some of the things she does not, but also authentic enough that it generates sympathy not only for her situation but for those around her who create that situation.
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XYZZY Awards blog
Reviews of Best Writing Nominees (Robb Sherwin)
I can't categorize this Varytale experience as a role-playing game, CYOA story, text adventure, all three or something in between, but Bee made me want to spend more time with the people inside it, which is more important than classification, anyway.
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With Varytale's controls, it feels as though you are navigating the way your character feels throughout a functional story rather than your taking part in creating the story. That is a strong difference than traditional parser interactive fiction. While there were stats to control, acquaintances to make, and Zulu root words to study, it felt like I was seeing the world through a characters eyes rather than an active participant in the way the story engaged. This is not a slight to Short's writing, which was deft and well-conceived, it was just an unexpected experience.
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
Related reviews: cyoa, coming of age, words, narrative, childhood, varytale, aesthetics, family, non-genre, character stats, Christianity, homeschool, education, spelling
The fundamental subject-matter of literature is difficult loves: problems that matter deeply but are insoluble. By this standard, Bee is the most literary CYOA that I've encountered. A coming-of-age story about impossible parents, limited means and awkward emergence from isolation, it put me a little in mind of I Capture the Castle (which Emily tells me she hasn't read).
Rather than being structured around a strict linear tree like the bulk of stateless CYOA, Varytale encourages modular design more akin to RPG gamebooks or Echo Bazaar style browser-adventure-RPG games. Bee is structured around the passage of the year, with different events becoming available at different seasons; age, the state of your stats, and previous events also determine which options are available. A number of sections can be repeated with variations, but (more so than its antecedent Echo Bazaar) these are things whose repetition makes sense as narrative and as reality: chores, seasonal religious festivals. The fragmentary nature of Varytale stories is very well-suited to the retrospective style, with its assembled incidents of memory.
It should scarcely need repeating by this point, but Emily writes consistently sharp, telling prose. The story would not work without it.
One of the game's strongest points is how successfully it evokes the particular intensity of the aesthetic sense emerging in adolescence, the discovery of a transformative power, burning in isolation, standing out sharply against the world of drab concerns and tired formulas. The most prominent parts of this involve the protagonist mapping out for her own feelings about Christian ritual and the English language, but also in the seasons, in the contemplation of an emotion, in the elusive moments of family happiness. It's a story about learning to appreciate things deeply, and how to negotiate for a better deal, and reconciling the two. It's about the realisation that you're smarter than your parents. Like much of Emily's work, it's about the pathos of limitations, about lofty ambitions that will inevitably be diminished -- you're told from the outset that you will not win Nationals. (Despite the competitive framing, and in line with the Varytale ethos, this is only slightly game-like; character stats are tracked loosely, and while not every node can be found in a single playthrough, there is not really any challenge per se.)
It's also about an interweaving of shame and bristly pride; at its most documentary, Bee becomes something of an account of the culture and experience of homeschooled children. It's neither an attack nor an apology, though it has definite elements of both; it paints a more nuanced picture of homeschooling than is usual from either its advocates or mainstream critics. One obvious effect is that the protagonist has no friends in the normal sense: the listing of known characters makes a distinction between family (too basic to list) and Acquaintances, an uncomfortable and lukewarm category that's confirmed by the text. (Of course, much of this is because the protagonist's intellectual development is far in advance of everything else; it's easy to think of her as being considerably older than she is. For a while I had the vague sense that the story dealt so slightly with sex and romance because she was from a repressed religious family; but once I actually articulated the thought, I realised it didn't hold up.)
(As a technical note, I first played this when play was restricted by Story Points, Varytale's equivalent of the Echo Bazaar candle. Bee is, at present, no longer thus restricted. Generally speaking I loathe the candle system; it's horribly anti-player. But I'll admit that its artificial choke on pacing does affect how one reads, and offset the distinctly CYOA-ish temptation to hurry through the text and to get to options.)
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 :(
My first encounter with BEE was magical.
I have been feeling restless and blue of late; few activities have been able to engage or cheer me for very long. But I nearly always enjoy Short's work, so when I saw she had a new one out, I ran over to read it. I thought I'd get to play a great game. Instead, I encountered a beautiful work that helped me get lost in someone else's life for a while.
It's sort of hard to explain the sense of engagement Short's created here, because it's different than a CYOA and even a well-made IF. While I made choices throughout the piece, it didn't strike me as a game. It sucked me in like a great novella--one I was co-creating (not just reading!) in real-time.
I've since done a number of playthroughs in order to see the different endings (there seem to be many). During these playthroughs, I've been guilty of skimming through in order to get to the "picking choices" part.
But my favorite version was my first run-through, which I did at a slower pace, contemplatively. Something about the prose, the cyclical scenes, and the portrayal of the quieter moments in life really spoke to my heart.
I am thankful for the talent, hard work, and investment Miss Short put into this piece; it transported me away from my discomfort for a while, and I think that is one of the noblest things a writer can do.
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