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ParserComp 2021: Grooverland, September 19, 2021
“We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” – Seneca the Younger, Epistula LXXXIV.
Passion is the rain that has kept this garden flourishing. Interactive fiction could have long since desiccated, forgotten save for a footnote, a subject suitable only for archaeology, and yet we live in the midst of its glistening fruits, a victorious riot of life and color that seems to defy the surrounding desert: whether the Promethean fire of Inform 7, in which this work is written, or the tireless work of volunteers who have kept competitions like ParserComp alive, in which this work was submitted, the story of interactive fiction dramatizes the quest of an ever fluctuating community to preserve from the entropies and centrifugies of a chaotic digital age this delicate and beautiful artform we love.
One of the most human and touching contributions to this quest is Brian Rushton’s ongoing project to meticulously document his devoted and meandering journey through huge swathes of interactive fiction past and present. IFDB currently has nearly 9300 reviews; 2244 of them were written by Rushton. No matter how far afield you wander on IFDB, stumbling upon games by obscurity long since swallowed, you will still see a flicker of life, a fingerprint of a wanderer before you: Rushton’s careful, thoughtful, and gently curious review. Isn’t it poignant for a game released decades ago on a platform no more to an audience no more by an author no more to have its spirit captured in conversations afresh, stirred by the industrious Mathbrush, who, like a guide through a ruin, points out to you each artifact and how it worked, what it meant?
A curious evolution of this pursuit is the way in which Rushton has allowed his love for the medium to guide his own creations into a surprising but satisfying metafictional bent. Whether it is last year’s The Magpie Takes the Train or this game, Grooverland, we find his works increasingly incorporating love for the medium into their own warp and weft (warp especially, in the case of Grooverland). In this melange of Chandler Groover’s vivid fantasias, Rushton places us in a Groover-themed park that grows increasingly sinister as the night deepens. His games have been transformed into amusement rides that terrify and, if necessary, delight. We have an Eat Me cake, a Midnight. Swordfight. laserfight, a Three-Card Trick three-card trick, and, of course, our trusty pal Toby from Toby’s Nose. These attractions invite the player to dwell not just in the particulars of each reference but in the lushly bleakly ludic mood that pervades the entire paresthesia symphony. We’re forced to consider the invisible sinews that tie these games together into a cohesive whole, a play of light and shadow that grows increasingly fraught until we no longer seem to be playing.
The shifting amalgamation of locations and play patterns can loom overwhelming, but Rushton introduces a clarity of purpose in the orderliness and smoothness of the design that makes the dizzying delightful. The map is laid out on a central road, which keeps us oriented through the park and allows us to switch through multiple attractions with ease, as many puzzles require. A plethora of neatly sorted hints keeps us from getting lost (except on the occasion it tells you to get lost). An exhausting amount of polish eases the player through the entire experience and makes exploring and dallying enjoyable. Rushton clearly has spent a lot of time and energy to make this game shimmer.
That sheen proves rather necessary through some steep puzzles. The Midnight Laserfight sequence was deeply confusing, with so much to track, so little of it explained, quite a bit of clutter, and a throughline that would terrify Euclid. While I understood after the fact what I had been doing, I confess I had to cheat a little off Mike Russo’s transcript (you should read his transcripts by the way, he’s got a wonderful dry wit), since the hints here got locked up. Some of the puzzles require you to go through multiple locations to succeed or require you to have sought out and noticed objects you might not have noticed, so the nudging about when to keep trying versus when you need to be doing something else entirely was very much appreciated.
Some of the puzzles were really clever, like when you have to play the creaky house like an instrument, but some of the puzzles did feel a bit perfunctory. I felt the menagerie puzzle, where you just wander around, read signs, then crunch some numbers, to be a little unengaging, especially when you have such theatrical creatures all around you. Like the skull scraper, about whom the menagerie keeper jokes, “He likes to get in your head. Don’t let him.”, is a very evocative element, but you don’t really engage with it, you just look at a sign that plainly informs you what kind of food you should give him. How much more fun this puzzle would have been if these animals were as interactive as the petting zoo animals from across the way!
A lot of the writing can feel equally perfunctory. When we ask Dad about the pipe, we get this sentence: "Sorry, Lily, it’s sad the pipe is clogged and we can’t see the rest of the park.” That’s pretty much equivalent with “I don’t have anything to say about that.” Similarly, when we ask Wade about David, “He just points to David, who’s right in front of you.” While that is nice state tracking, nevertheless it feels like a missed opportunity. Given the nightmare jollies that Groover’s oeuvre oozes, the fact that so many characters seem muted and mechanical creates a disjunction that flattens the experience. I get that the sheer amount of dialogue written into this game makes it impossible for every line to zing, but I think the lack of technicolor pizzazz is the vital element that keeps this game from truly accomplishing its ambiance.
That’s not to say that Rushton doesn’t pepper the game with some great quotes. I particularly enjoyed the silly but sinister response when you ask the jelly man about himself: “Jelly is my name and jelly are my ways.” This quick quip belies so much depth that makes this incidental character rivetingly enigmatic. There’s also a fun subtheme about Lily taking a lot of silly classes: when we try to burn something, “You promised your competitive barbecue coach that you wouldn’t burn things outside of competition.”; when we try to attack a character, “Your karate instructor made you promise to try to find a peaceful solution before attempting violence.”; and, the funniest of the lot, when we try to take something from a character, “You promised your pickpocketing teacher that you would only steal in class, and mom’s present list seems to belong to Mom.” We also get some great descriptive lines, as when we get lost in the corn maze: “You travel for what feels like minutes, but the sun is already setting. Then the moon rises, streaks across the sky, and sets again. The sun comes up again, then down, over and over. But it isn’t the same sun. It has grown fat and swollen, ready to burst. The moon crumbles. The stars fade. You close your eyes and run until you find yourself at the demon again. Such is fate.” There’s something so enchantingly weird and hallucinatory about this paragraph, yet it also manages to come across as exhausted, drained of all color. That’s a difficult combination to achieve, but Rushton does it here masterfully. Finally, there’s this line when we enter the creaky house, which makes great use of surprise italics, then pairs it with a punchy understatement: “You can hear something howling outside. It might be the wind.”
When the game comes together in an otherworldly climax, the intensity of its atmosphere pressurizes with an emotional punch, as Lily must sacrifice the last remaining vestiges of her family in order to try and preserve something, anything, from the imminent collapse into pure paradoxical nonness. One by one, Lily’s sister’s bracelet, her mother’s present list, signs of the love in which she was once immersed, are devoured by the dream, and we instead must confront the violent denouement of our inability to hold on. While I would have appreciated a bit more emotive verve in this last section, Rushton does a good job handling the underlying philosophical stakes, and, while not eliding it entirely, he does evade some of the more boring Manichean tropes the game threatens by adding nuance to the roles of the Mirrored Queen and Scarlet Empress. Moreover, I appreciated that this central conundrum pertains to the rest of the game, that we feel that their battle is actually present in each turn we’ve taken along the way.
If Grooverland is a game that is simultaneously ambitious and perfunctory, then it is in keeping with the conflictions innate to such a work, so animated by the drive of passion as it careens through the frictions of creation. Beneath the writing, the puzzles, the polish, we get a sense of Rushton as both charmingly starryeyed and inordinately weary. Perhaps, in that, he captures here the very dichotomy that underpins so much of interactive fiction’s history: dreams of enchantment underpinned by the exhaustive labor necessary to keep the spirit alive as everything threatens to fracture forever.