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About the Story
A young man named Jackson drives through the southeastern United States in search of someone – or something – he calls “Bluebird” as he experiences visions of the historical past.
52nd place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 6
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This belongs to a certain genre of twines: literary-inclined, mostly linear twine game that uses text and choice aesthetically? This is a genre, right?
This game makes use of a dark Americana/Southern Gothic aesthetic with a road trip narrative, somewhat resembling Kentucky Route Zero or Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It's a pessimistic game about traveling through modern/historical America, in a world that's familiar yet frightening, hostile and hospitable in equal measures.
This story is surreal, unstuck in time. I thought it was close to the modern day until I saw the literal (Spoiler - click to show)Timothy McVeigh (I could brush off the Civil War battlefield as a hallucination). Then I wondered what year this was. There were references to segregation. Then I saw the hotel wifi. And then I got to the titular Black Mountain College and meet people who fled from Nazi Germany who have Wikipedia page links. It doesn’t really have a defined time or place (kind of like KR0).
BLK MTN has two phases: one during a road trip in Texas and the southern US, the other at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. I enjoyed the first part more, and in fact I thought the whole story was going to be the road trip. I loved Ashleigh as a character and I wanted to see more of her. The story slowed down after arriving at the college, I feel like. It fell into what seemed to me like a didactic mode, trying to teach us about these people and this forgotten slice of history, dropping Wikipedia links for all the mentioned historical figures. The ending of the story feels a little unearned. (Spoiler - click to show)It’s supposed to be about Jackson finding a community and belonging, but that didn’t feel right?
There was one sex scene which was very uncomfortable, which I guess is the point. Actually it wasn’t a sex scene, just a... physical intimacy scene? It was very well written.
I usually prefer a more terse, less ornate style of writing, with less text in each passage/segment, which is not at all this game's style. But I thought that this game was very well written. It can be very verbose, but it's also one of the few IFComp games that I replayed, because there are a lot of interesting pieces to it. Personally, I think it's one of the more underrated games in IFComp 2021.
Replaying, I found that it’s very easy to skip Ashleigh’s path entirely, to never even meet her and arrive at Black Mountain College almost immediately after the opening scene. I feel like that skips out on the most interesting part of the story. And that brings up a broader point: in a lot of twines that try to add in choice into what was conceptualized as a single narrative, I’ve found that often the choices are essentially, do you want to see this cool and interesting content or do you want to be boring and skip it. Do you pick the cool choice or the boring choice. I do this in my games too. I feel like there should be a term for this pattern. It’s hard to avoid! A few games are really good at constantly laying a path forward, like Birdland, or a lot of the Choice of Games. But plenty of otherwise excellent pieces of IF don’t do this well; they don’t provide a strong vocabulary of choice. I don’t know how to do this consistently either. At least, maybe we should signpost somehow that a choice will skip half the story.
Going back to the game, on the path where I skipped the road trip there are still references to Ash even though I’ve never met her. And I think that Marisol recognized Jackson even though they hadn’t met in that playthrough. I think this is a continuity error? Or maybe it doesn’t even matter given the hallucinatory nature of everything that happens.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
BLK MTN is enigmatic in a way that’s atypical for IF, operating on a dreamy logic that’s not so much surreal as internal, focused on conveying the experience of its protagonist without overmuch concern for narrative coherence. On paper, I should like this kind of thing: while rare in IF-world, it’s par for course for the literary fiction which is my static-fiction genre of choice (see, “on paper” was a pun!) And I do, to an extent – but I while I appreciate the ideas that animate the game, I found that one of the author’s choices really undermined my ability to enjoy the piece. Digging into that requires some pretty thorough spoilers of at least what my path through the game looked like, though – and since I can’t pick out individual spoilers the way I can fuzzy-text the solution to a puzzle, fair warning that I’m going to fully relate what happened in my playthrough.
I said BLK MTN leads with its protagonist’s experience, so let’s start there: as the blurb says, we play someone named Jackson who’s on an existentialist road trip, looking for himself as he drives alone through the American South. We get hints of backstory, but only hints – it seems like he used to be traveling with someone named Ashleigh, but she’s not there anymore, and he’s got an old friend named Jim who’s set up at an art-college-cum-commune in North Carolina. Per the blurb, he’s also seeing visions, apparently courtesy of some entity he calls “Bluebird”, though as the story opens Bluebird has stopped appearing to him.
Whatever got him to this point, Jackson is searching for meaning and for connection, and visiting Jim and the eponymous Black Mountain College (a real place, as an in-line Wikipedia link points out) gives him opportunities for both. Much of the story as I experienced it played out as a series of vignettes, as Jackson attends classes or participates in college activities, meeting one or another real-life figure and talking to them about their life, ethos, and work (there’s ambiguity about whether you’re really meeting them and the story is a period piece, or if you’re having visions of their midcentury existence).
Again, in theory this could work – and I can see how for someone who has more connection with the figures and movement being depicted, engaging with the fictional depictions here would be very rewarding – but I have to confess this largely left me cold, and not just because I only recognized the name of one of these folks (Walter Gropius, and pretty much the only thing I know about him is that he’s a different person than father-of-international-law Hugo Grotius). Rather, it’s because the prose doesn’t feel as strong as I wanted it to be, and because the story, at least as I experienced it, was missing major pieces.
On the first point, as mentioned this is literary fiction, which I find really relies on the power of its writing for its effect. And there are some lovely images here, like a bit where Jackson notices the way some propped-up ladders create a new perspective: “in the sky, elevated rungs break up the air above, dissecting the clouds that pop through, framing and organizing the atmosphere into parcels.” But for every passage like that in my notes, I have several like this, where he reflects on whether he wants to stay at the college: “Maybe the fact that this wasn’t a preconceived idea meant I could probably fade out and on my in a few days time. It’s comfortable here, but I don’t want to be siloed into another group that I’m always on the outside of.” Beyond the grammar errors that fuzz up the meaning of the writing, the ideas are rather vague, and the metaphor of being siloed into something that you’re outside of feels incoherent. And a lot of the prose is like this, or just flatly bad: “the glove compartment sits there like a jeweled chest waiting to be unlocked, discovered, the holy grail of the last crusade.”
On the second point, there are a lot of continuity issues that refer to events that I never experienced: a character named Marisol comes out of nowhere but the game seemed to think I’d already met her and related a dream Jackson had apparently had about her, Ashleigh’s name similarly comes up without context, and prosaically, there’s an aside saying Jackson’s main concern when he first came to the college was whether he’d brought enough beer, but I don’t remember him voicing that in my playthrough. The plot thread involving Bluebird was also completely dropped in my experience of the narrative – I think after the second passage, Jackson never said the name again. Many of these omissions were due to choices I made - this is one of those hypertext-fiction pieces where links move you through the text without any signposting, and going back and trying different choices I’ve confirmed that it’s possible to miss extended scenes that the story may assume have actually happened – but some of them seem deliberate.
In fact, I don’t think either this structural issue or the prose quality are errors as such, but actually reflect intentional authorial choices. The game opens by telling us Bluebird’s visions are coming less frequently, and late in my playthrough I came across a few passages that seem to tip the author’s hand:
"Was there any use for documenting the uncanny, the pointless, the ephemeral? The things that existed more as unknowns than knowns, experiences with no explanations? I had been so equipped with reason that at some point all irrational experiences had started to be left by the wayside, edited out, rendered non-existent because of their inability to fit into the whole."
"It started to seem like there was more discarded from the story than what was left in the story itself."
"If you can read this, then thank you. Thank you for staying with me amongst the mistakes and errors, the inconsistancies [sic], the typos and run-on sentences. The translation I did from scribbled nots to my head and back again."
These read like statements of purpose, but also apologia, for the disconnected narrative and inconsistent writing. And I think I get it! Jackson clearly has some pivotal experiences at the college, but trying to reduce them to dead text laying out the cause-and-effect is a doomed endeavor, so portraying that frustration diegetically, by having the irrational – but most important – pieces of the story disappear while slapdash prose is only intermittently able to point towards the intensity of what’s missing is an artistic choice that makes sense: this is how we get from Black Mountain to BLK MTN.
So it’s an audacious move and one that’s motivated by the piece’s themes, but it didn’t ultimately work for me. Creating a work that intentionally frustrates its own aims obviously builds in a lot of barriers to engagement, but there are strategies around this. The most obvious is probably to make sure the sentence-to-sentence reading experience is strong – when playing BLK MTN, I kept thinking of Queenlash, a game in this year’s Spring Thing that had some of the same issues but which I loved, partially because the prose was amazing, sparking off two or three different indelible images in each paragraph. But there are other options too, maybe focusing on deeply-drawn characters or leaning harder into historical analogues or philosophical ideas to drift off their associations (Queenlash also does this, anchoring its plot in real-world history). BLK MTN largely eschews these approaches, though, at least in the playthrough I got – and while its restraint is admirable in theory, it winds up on the wrong side of austere for my taste.
Highlight: This review was already really long (and Henry is stirring from a nap – please give me five more minutes, kid!) so I didn’t include as many examples of the bits of writing that I thought really worked, but there are a bunch of them in my notes. Here’s one more: “After rinsing off my face, I try to rally to go to the music performance. The scene is wild. Costumes made of wire and cardboard. Something gestural and rich with motion. The rocking of the road hasn’t left me though, and I feel my eyelids start to droop.”
Lowlight: I wasn’t a fan of the Wikipedia links, which continue as you meet new characters – at least on my phone, they weren’t differentiated from in-game links, so every time I clicked one and was taken to a new window it was disorienting. And it sometimes made me feel like I was being asked to do homework before being allowed to engage with the story – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the historical context, but I think another approach, like footnotes, an afterword, or just more in-game framing, would have been a better choice.
How I failed the author: attempting to analyze a novella-length work of literary fiction when you’re sleep-deprived and reading it on a phone is a dubious endeavor at best, so perhaps I should have let myself be more focused on the experience rather than attempting to force my parenting-addled brain to extract overarching meaning.
I had trouble grasping this game as a whole, perhaps due to tiredness or picking unusual branches.
From what I can gather, it's a branching Twine game where you travel around the South, contemplating life in an almost dream-like way while also experiencing bits of the Civil War and the historical, experimntal university Black Mountain College.
In presentation, it is the standard blue-on-black Twine with no fancy features. It uses both text-replace links and normal, new-screen hyperlinks and doesn't distinguish between them, so it can be confusing at times. The Twine games of Hannah Powell-Smith are good examples of how to differentiate between different links effectively.
I'm always sympathetic to surreal, trippy games, like Harmonic Time Bind Ritual Symphony (recreating the author's real-life mental break) or drug trip games (like the excellent Blue Chairs), as it presents a view of life I'm not used to. This game was hard to pin down, though, and I feel like I definitly missed something important. Feel free to comment if you've found a deeper layer to the game.
I confess I was uneasy about this one, since it not only featured an all caps title but also one without vowels. The second bit reminds me of how Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole character sent John Tydeman a novel with all the e's missing, by fax. Which resulted in a very, err, polite letter back. Thankfully the author is a little better at the whole creative writing thing than Adrian Mole. (So, for the record, is the author of D'ARKUN, also in this year's comp.) So any fears of "LOOK AT ME I'M CREATIVE" vibes are unfounded, though as the title clues, you may just have to be ready for something unusual to get everything you can from it. I found it quite challenging, emotionally (it's largely puzzle-free,) and it looks like there were different paths through. It's also quite possible a timed-text bug disrupted me from looking as deeply into the story as I'd hoped. Sometimes you have to reset. But I know this, on replay: there's stuff I missed the first time through, and I'm glad I cheated a bit to see everything that was there. Some branches I missed made sense.
The first part of the story is a cross-country road trip, starting in California, destination Asheville, North Carolina. I've heard all sorts of things about how beautiful Asheville is–it certainly seems like A Destination. The main character, Jackson, is headed there, though they don't quite know why. Everything is set up to be a bit surreal, and by the end, it was unclear to me how much the narrator was hallucinating or imagining. However, given that they went to Black Mountain, an experimental commune/university which only existed until 1957 and which really seemed doomed to fail despite/because of its noble/nonmaterialistic goals. There are some breaks in time -- Confederate soldiers are off to the side, and you also meet Timothy McVeigh if you are brave enough to explore after dark. Yet things switch back quickly--your hotel has Wifi, for instance. It's nontrivial to keep track of. There's also weird stuff if you turn on the radio to keep you company. Someone named R. E. Lee describes a rebellion against the nation that has to happen.
Without spoiling too much, you can meet R. E. Lee. Bluebird is also referenced in Black Mountain. But it is quite possible to miss them, and though BLK MTN has an undo function, reworking through is tough. Perhaps a "go to this chapter" page at the end--or maybe a password-protected index--is in order. I certainly put off posting this review of BLK MTN to IFDB, because I was worried I'd miss something gigantic, but once I poked at the source code, things fell into place.
There's also a fellow passenger, Ashleigh, you can pick up for an intentionally awkward but not creepy love scene. So with all that, things didn't really start for me until Black Mountain. Perhaps that's because I really enjoy reading about noble failures, and things that should've worked but didn't, and maybe of people who should've been more famous but weren't. And at Black Mountain, we get a feel of that. The first time through, in fact, I failed to see everything, because I was still taking in all the names and ideas thrown at me right away. In short, I chose the "be a wimp and don't express yourself" options, because I did not to be in a virtual Burning Man convention. (My fears were unwarranted.) The only name I recognized was Walter Gropius, and him only because of his cameo in Tom Lehrer's song Alma, which has some of Lehrer's very cleverest rhymes. That I'm thinking of Tom Lehrer after reading a piece like this tells you where my priorities lie, but I do have to share this rhyme with people who haven't heard it.
(Spoiler - click to show)
While married to Gus she met Gropius
And soon she was swinging with Walter
Gus died and her teardrops were copious
She cried all the way to the altar
You meet someone called Marisol, who (Spoiler - click to show)reminds you of Ashleigh, and who eventually sings Bluebird (I missed this, because I don't care for live music, especially not "spontaneous" Bohemian live music or general 60s counterculture-style be-ins) and your friend who called you to Black Mountain, Jim Clemens, while not a historical figure, is sort of in charge, and he informs you Black Mountain has lost their lease. So BLK MTN ends with some interesting reflections.
These were scattered throughout BLK MTN and were the most interesting parts to me. The local flavor along the way--well, it seems like it had to be there, and it made sense, and I'm glad I took the detours, but it never quite soared. The reflections on memory that I appreciated at the time will probably pop up in some form, and it also called into question how much we can and should remember of past events. The story deliberately keeps this unclear, and I also found on re-reading that I valued a lot of parts differently the second time through. Any actual specifications or concrete suggestions on what to remember, though, would seem to violate the spirit of BLK MTN, where so much is vague and ambiguous.
So I do think the title is appropriate: you immediately see "Oh, this is Black Mountain, with stuff missing." In fact, I figured Black Mountain was just some bit of scenery, and this may've dented my expectations--I was quite glad to find it was an actual collection of people, and BLK MTN didn't end with telling you the journey was the important thing and a moment of realization. It's more than that. You will find stuff missing along the way, and once you hit the Black Mountain, you will see other stuff is missing, or it shortly gets lost. You will be sure you missed something. This isn't always positive, but it works.
BLK MTN seems most closely related to You Are Spam-Zapper, with its attempt to make philosophy out of something entirely different and wild, but it doesn't seem as optimistic, and for whatever reason, that worked a bit better for me, even if I do appreciate more optimistic works. Perhaps it didn't introduce any new terminology, even if some sentences clanked slightly. I feel bad not giving more detailed references and quotes, because BLK MTN seems to deserve it. It certainly got across much more serious ideas, left me with more, got far less in my face than I expected.
Putting together a resume is soul crushing, literally, it crushes your soul into one page of paper which in ink which may as well register parish burials dissects you into places you have been, titles you have worn, activities which once you tried to pretend to yourself that you did. Your time is eaten, your life elided, and what remains is sheer time, what to the machines all this sound and fury signifies. “The days all run into each other these days, and it’s hard to distinguish time, at times,” Laura Paul writes, muddling expressions with definitions to merge them in a haze. From this month of that year to that month of this year you held this title: because what else, where else could you have gone?
Jackson hears in himself a call that he chases, never reaches. Every freedom sought seems in its own way a constriction: watching others swimming naked, Jackson grumbles, “I’m supposed to just strip down and expose myself to these perfect strangers? Maybe if they stay away from me for long enough I can endure this.” The freedom you cannot have and do not want. This commune, high in the Black Mountains, seems alive with possibility; several times the novella links you to Wikipedia, inviting you to immerse yourself in the endless interconnection of knowledge forever floating within this web in which are we enmeshed, teasing you down lanes you can pretend leads you to a story that will make you feel less alone, though time and again you feel more, more, ever more alone, as every home reminds you you do not belong. Greeted with a bit of hospitality, Jackson immediately reaches its limit: “Standard’s kinda been peanut butter sandwiches and brews around here, but it does the job.” An invitation that puts you on edge, reminds you that your presence is provisional on your ability to provide, as indeed Jackson feels always upon the limits of what this place can provide: “I thought it’d be a bit nice to get established here, but now I’m not so sure I want to contort myself to fit into this place, and my fate is definitely not going to be dependent on whether or not I earn a college degree.” The specters of freedom loom their constrictions, with the futures you cannot project upon such space, with the fear that you are fleeing something you cannot always escape, because, perhaps, you are this very fear: “Part of me wants to run and flee and drive away again, an old me, a deep reflex hidden in the shadows of my heart. The person I couldn’t accept, the person I no longer want to be. I leave the door open, unlocked, and let whoever sees me see me and whoever finds me find me and I am what I am. A man with irrevokable [sic] visions, one of the thousands, or millions, that the system forgot. I won’t run this time though. I’m going to stay. If not with this place, then with these people.” Commitment to continuity despite the disjunctures inevitable; desire that something, anything remains of the dream, that it is not all just waking up on another tomorrow, that it will not end up dry ink on dead tree, that anything exists into which you can slip, discover some other way to live…
That the story does not find an answer is germane to its cigarette jitters vibe. We get a notional hope unwavering: “We’ll spread, we’ll head in opposite directions, alternate directions, separate paths. We’ll keep going north until we end up at the bottom of the world. We’ll keep going as long as we need, until we maybe end up right back where we started. We’ll convene again.” Yet this is but a Pynchonian entanglement of karmas, with its hope for futures, with its understood pessimism that they shall not coalesce. To some extent, this very despair through hope seems almost the theme, as we might surmise that our Jackson upon the cutting edge of 50s American abstract art is, perhaps, someone we already know, perhaps a Pollock to whom such a statement might seem apt: “I pretended there were no hallucinations, that there were straight and firm lines between real and imagined, what was perceived and what others told you—and I found that there wasn’t.” That Pollock dies in a car crash, that he finds only death in his wanderings increasingly drunken, well, at least he painted it first, how many of us can say the same?
Still, one wishes perhaps a bit more stability from this work, that it might not so easily shiver off the hook. Every sensation, every concrete attachment to the world, is doubted: “I’ve made it to Texas. At least that’s what the signs say.” Insofar as there is a bit of roadtrip propulsion behind it, this jitteriness can work out well, as in this sentence that manages to anxiety its way into an impactful thrum: “But after driving through both sunrises and sunsets, there’s a tunnel, no light but a tunnel, and then there’s light, there’s the light, the trees, the leaves as I speed, I speed on down 40 to someplace Jim calls home.” When, however, the momentum sloops languid and sentences double back on themselves to no avail, the result tends towards bumbling ramblers that trip and stumble and stagger and splat: “Bluebird hasn’t been showing up as frequently though, from time to time I don’t hear from her at all. She doesn’t call out my name anymore, I don’t hear my name. That’s why I have to write everything down now. I have to write everything down now to find her, to remember what she said, in case her voice has left me for good. I think she hasn’t shown up now for almost twelve days, at least that’s what the scribble on the back of the discarded receipt in the glove compartment said the last time I checked. I need to review everything I wrote down to make sure. I can’t help but think she’s disappeared completely without a final message I can hold onto.” At the core of this is an efficient subtlety, but the writing is too committed to a confessive effusiveness to apply the red pen. The novella is bloated with such sentences that do not quite achieve their effect, for instance: “Other times, I’d be sleeping, but sometimes I’d be awake.” which doubles us back onto an idea that perhaps does not require elaboration. The novella’s structure itself commits to this impatient effusion, as when we suddenly deal with the possibility that the college could close down despite never having attended a class. Lines like “I had just come to terms with myself here, the ultimate shape shifting of my mind” ring false when basically all I’ve done is refuse to skinny dip. A bit more patience could really help to sell many elements that feel tacked on, like our partner Ashleigh or the hallucinations of Civil War soldiers.
Yet I did feel worn down through the story, matching with Jackson in how little, by the end of it, we could harbor any desire to trace another road, to seek in a destination all we will never there discover. How so much roadtrips remind us we would wish for nowhere other than home! Fear and anxiety overload the reader, as in the razor’s edge exchange with the gas station attendant, as in Fielding slipping away only to appear out of nowhere to offer you a beer; the fear of the open road, the anxiety numbness that cakes up within you from constant threat assessments. You are not safe; you are not welcome; you are not anyone; you are only motion, and yet motion is perhaps freedom pure, the jinn that cannot be captured in any stability, as when Jackson admires more the flight than the foundation as the college disintegrates: “But it wasn’t that I had never found happiness, it’s that I never found the end.” And, for us at least, it is the end. The wandering has to be enough. There can be no line to the page to contain us when we are the quill.