by Emily Short profile

Slice of life

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Number of Reviews: 7
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A thoughtful story of childhood, with many paths, September 21, 2022
by Wynter (London, UK)
Related reviews: Choice-based fiction

I had long marked Bee for reading one day, but was disappointed to see that it was no longer available as the original platform was now defunct; thanks to the efforts of the author and of Autumn Chen, this sweet story is now getting the readers it so well deserves once more.

The unnamed narrator, perhaps 11 or 12 years old, is educated at home with her younger sister. Her life is shaped by the seasons of the church, the homespun ways of her frugal parents, the trends of her local home education circle, and a long-running desire to win a national spelling competition.

Each 'turn' in the story gives the reader a set of options, which recur throughout: the chance to review some spellings; a social engagement; household chores; services for different times of the Christian year. Within the chosen passage, more options nudge the narrator towards different actions, subtly shifting the story in one direction or another.
Gradually, four different endings emerge. As with any choice-based fiction that commands my attention, I was pleased to read this one over and over, each time uncovering a few different passages, and moving the story in a different direction.

The subtlety of the story comes from the fact that the narrator's family are presented as trying to be distinctly different from the world around them while also avoiding real fanaticism. The narrator sometimes wishes to please her parents, while also displaying a streak of sarcasm from time to time. Above all, she begins to get a sense of how her life could unfold after the competition and once she has a chance to live differently one day.

A really lovely story, and worth the wait.

Brilliant Writing, September 14, 2022
by Ola (Sweden)

I got a glimpse into a world I didn't know much about and found pretty much all of the characters relatable as well as interesting.

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
A lovely story, unfortunately cut short [UPDATE], September 11, 2022
by autumnc
Related reviews: favs

Update: Half of this review is now outdated because the complete version of Bee for dendry has been released.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.

Old review:

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 :(

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A long choice game about life as a home-schooled child, April 4, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

I had mixed reactions to Bee by Emily Short, most of which were favorable. I compared this game in my mind to Bigger Than You Think by Plotkin, which is another choice game by a famous parser author.

The game is in a completely real-life setting. You play a homeschooled child over three years or more as they prepare for the national spelling bee. Time is organized in months. Each month, you can choose from a variety of activities usually three), and within each activity, you can control your reactions to events and sometimes some big choices.

The game allows quite a variety of choices; the first time I played, I practiced my butt off for the finals. The second time I played, I goofed off as much as possible.

The game was enjoyable; as someone who entered competitions like this as a kid, it was fun to study for the test and get competitive. The interactions with neighbors were fun, too.

But the game got pretty monotonous, perhaps because I tried to be so focused each time. 36 months, with multiple actions a month, makes for a long game, and there was not enough material to fill it all up. Instead, many scenarios were repeated five times or more.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Melancholy and wistful, February 13, 2021
by Sono

The word I'd use is "versimilitude". The Varytale version that is available is sadly hobbled, with the endings unreachable. I highly recommend checking them out through the source code after a few playthroughs. The ones I could find are epilogue.scene.dry and running-away.scene.dry.

Key moments that characterize the scenes are:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Your father speaking of the pecking order of the husband, then the wife, then the children below.
The choicelessness of all the children.
A competition that for winning is as much a literal unattainability as a wished-for reverie of things just out of reach.
The family living in poverty, and also donating away any money or help other people offer.
The futility of running away where neither societal safety nets nor individuals can help you.
"It gets better," Sara says, and her expression is wry. "It gets much, much better. You just have to stick it out until you're older, and then you can choose for yourself what you want to do. Go to college, travel the world, change religions, shave your head if you want."

"It's going to be years before I'm that old!"

"I know," Sara says. "I really, really know."

That it seems like the only thing that can be done is wait.

It is a familiar misery like dust on unopened living room cabinets. I've had neither spelling bees nor Christian homeschooling nor poverty but the melancholy is the same, and the desire. The paint strokes are very fine. The image is suffocating, a blanket so soothingly familiar that you won't realize you haven't breathed until you're gone.

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
BEE casts a wonderful spell, June 9, 2012
by Danielle (The Wild West)

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.

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Words Apart, June 5, 2012

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.)

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