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Micro interactive fiction, December 10, 2015
At this point, I've become a shameless B Minus Seven fan. Even though Voice Box came in fourth place in its EctoComp division, it was my favorite game entered into the whole contest. I wasn't too surprised to see it place where it did, since B Minus Seven's games are usually divisive (to put it mildly), but I was also happy to see that it got a decent overall score despite its rank. I think people may be warming up to B's style!
Voice Box is probably the most accessible game B Minus Seven has written to date. One reason for that is because it's so short. It also doesn't tax the player like A Trial or play any weird tricks with the code like Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes. You can read it like a traditional story. Another thing that makes it more accessible is that it's tonally consistent. Something I love about B's games is the humor, which can be indirect and eccentric enough to make other people wonder if there is any humor, but although Voice Box has clever wordplay, it sticks to the same surreal horror tone throughout. So at least in that sense, you always have your feet on the ground with this game.
When it comes to the story, things get more obscure. A woman has her voice stolen by two creatures in the night, and she has the choice to either "weep" or "seek" in response. Weeping suggests passivity, retreat, denial, but also perhaps (curiously) acceptance, whereas seeking suggests action, rebellion, an attempt to reconcile what's happened. Each choice leads to another branch point with another "weep/seek" decision, and after three branches the story ends.
But this isn't really a story that ends when the text runs out. It may be short, but you cannot just blitz through it and then say, "Okay, now I'm done." A ton is packed into each little sentence. I've played Voice Box four times, and every time I come away with another idea about what it's doing. Rereading it, I make new connections between the different branches.
Essentially, this is branching flash fiction. It's tiny, but what it manages to do with its tininess is impressive. Even more impressive, to my mind, is that the branching is such a major factor in such a small game. There's barely anywhere for the branches to expand, the space is so tight, and yet every branch is meaningful, and the branching itself is one of those rare gameplay mechanics that illustrates what's happening in the narrative. You don't finish one branch and stop. You go back, you try again, you search them all, attempting to wrap your head around all the possibilities just as the protagonist is trying to do. If every branch tells another story, the protagonist cannot of course know what's available in the different branches that she isn't occupying at the moment, but she does have a sense for the emotions that are flowing through these different branches. She may not encounter her masculine clone when she climbs a tower in another branch instead, but her masculine clone is still out there; ditto for the tower when she does meet her clone.
In the end, Voice Box is a game about identity, and what happens when you've been denied the right to express who you really are. Sometimes outside forces deny you the right. Sometimes it's an inner struggle. Sometimes it's a combination. There's not really a good way to approach this problem logically. You have to feel your way around until you hopefully understand things better.
I like one bit in the game that almost seems like a commentary on the game itself:
All day she speaks in her hazy way to a tape recorder. Each night she ships her tapes. To some they bring peace, to others unease, depending on their need.
As always in a B Minus Seven game, the writing in Voice Box is great. Even if you never do manage to understand the story, you can still float along on the prose's rhythm.