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A lovely story, unfortunately cut short [UPDATE], September 11, 2022
Update: Half of this review is now outdated because the complete version of Bee for dendry has been released.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 :(