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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
A life in six stings, December 2, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

[Note - I beta tested this game]

Sting is an autobiographical parser game that sketches a life through a series of six vignettes, each punctuated, as the author himself was punctured, by bee stings. Aside from the curious tendency of the author to provoke the ire of bees (the presumably pheromonal explanation for which is never satisfactorily explored – subject matter for the sequel no doubt) the underlying theme of the game is the author’s relationship with his twin sister Liz who, whether they are together or apart, remains a constant presence in his life. We follow Russo (as he is affectionately known by his half-a-minute-younger sister), from his early life through his awkward teenage years to early adulthood and onwards to the present day, where we discover him at the other side of the traumatic personal event that was the impetus to create this interactive memoir in the first place.

This is the sort of game that is bound to be polarising amongst players. It’s necessarily linear and puzzleless (comparison with Adam Cadre’s Photopia seems inevitable), and deals with real life issues that many players who come primarily to IF for escapism will likely find off-putting. I’m that sort of player and yet Sting really did work for me. I’ll try to explore a little some of the reasons why I found it so successful.

For one thing, the decision to use a parser rather than choice mechanic was, I think, the correct one. Sting is a memoir and each vignette deals with a specific place and time in the author’s life, but this being interactive (non)fiction, the memories are lived, not static. It feels important that we’re able to run about and poke into corners, to try to pick the flowers and jump up and down on the scenery; the parser confers an impression of agency that couldn’t be achieved to the same degree in a purely choice-based game. Of course, these being memories of actual events, our choices are still constrained and our freedom of action is illusory (even more so than in your average parser game) and that creates an interesting tension in the gameplay, exemplified in the second vignette, where the player finds themselves in the middle of a sailing race that they seem bound to lose – because, in the author's recollection, the race probably was lost – but the trying to win (a painful and prolonged fumbling and failure to competently execute various nautical manoeuvres beneath a constant tirade of scorn from Liz) become the driving force of the narrative. The author has described aiming for an ‘adversarial vibe’ here, and he definitely succeeds: the familiar experience of the IF player fighting with the parser is employed quite deliberately, and cleverly, to simulate the experience of being in what feels like an inevitably losing situation (the author has pointed out that there is alternative path here, but it isn't easy to find; the uncertainty of the outcome is nicely reflective of the unreliability of memory). I can’t imagine the episode having quite the same sense of urgency and immediacy with a choice-based mechanic. Similarly, I think the parser lends a tactility to the settings and situations elsewhere in the game (wandering around the backyard as a child, or the family home, or your shared apartment later in life) that it would be hard to achieve with choice selection. Of course, with a parser game implementation is the factor that can make or break the experience for the player and here the author doesn’t let us down – pretty much everything is amply (and amusingly) described and works as it should, and the game has obviously been put together with a lot of care and attention, right down to the custom default responses that help maintain the tone of the piece throughout.

Aside from that fundamental design choice, there are other aspects of Sting that allow it to come off far more successfully than it otherwise might have done. Most of these are to do with the quality of the writing, which is very good throughout: lot of pleasing descriptive prose and wry, self-deprecating humour characteristic of the author (anyone who has had a game tested by MR and read his in-transcript comments will know what I mean). The characterisation of Liz, and the depiction of Russo’s relationship with her, is excellently done and very effectively captures something of the tensions and antagonisms intrinsic to all, and particularly to sibling, relationships (people being, more often than not, rather difficult things to live with). Russo and Liz fight and bicker, and generally wind each other up but there is never any doubt about the strength of the affection underpinning their relationship. More often than not, those we are closest to are those with whom we have most conflict, and Sting depicts that very effectively.

Another noteworthy aspect is the uncertain, dream-like quality of certain elements of the game that, along with occasional intrusions of the authorial voice, remind us we are playing through remembered events - with all the fallibility that implies. For example, examining the swing in the backyard of the childhood home elicits a confession that the author’s memory was cheating him: the swing wasn’t there yet when the events happened. Similarly, if we try to examine something that isn’t implemented we’re told you can't see that anywhere around (or maybe you just won't remember it being there). Elsewhere, the dream become darker as we find ourselves locked into events that we’d rather avoid: in particular, the happenings of the fifth episode have a nightmare quality as the player is carried along towards an inevitable and terrifying event and any attempt to take refuge is only to postpone the encounter for a little while. A sense of unease and insecurity is effectively deployed here to accentuate the failing relationship that is the main theme of the episode.

The game builds, in its own discursive way, towards the final snapshot set in the present, where Russo discusses baby names with his pregnant partner and reflects on the particular, terrible event which lies at the core of the whole story. There are many ways that this central subject could have been handled but the way it does play out amply demonstrates the author’s skill. Liz’s illness could have been the dominant theme of the game, overshadowing every scene; it might have been dealt with in greater and more explicit detail. The author doesn’t do that – quite possibly, and understandably, because such things are too painful to write about but also, I would venture, because the story is firmly and resolutely about life, in all of its colour, weirdness and mundanity, far more than it is about death. The effect, when we realise at the end that Liz is gone, is as impactful and shocking as it ought to be and the particular mixture of grief for the passing of a loved one, and happiness at imminent arrival of a first baby - polar events occurring in close proximity - is masterfully communicated through the dialogue in this final section. We spent so much time together, and knew each other so well, that I feel like I've always had a mental model of her living in my head, says Russo towards the end, highlighting a central truth of the game and of life in general: that we’re nothing so much as the memories we make, in ourselves and in others, that we never truly live in the present moment, only a forever receding past, and that often, people we know and love can seem as vivid and real – sometimes even more vivid and real – in our memories as they are in life.

Sting isn’t a game for everyone – some will find the gameplay too linear, the fiddly parser wrangling (particularly in the sailing episode) too irritating, the tone too uncomfortably personal, the subject matter too melancholy. But for those prepared to engage with it there is a compelling story here, told with much love, humour, and honesty. In any case, there can be little doubt of the artistry on display in this finely crafted and unusually autobiographical piece and, taken on its own terms, I think it is entirely successful. I'd expect it to be remembered as one of the highlights of this year’s competition. It certainly was for me.

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Mike Russo, December 2, 2021 - Reply
Maybe it's a failure of imagination, but I can't conceive of how an author could get a more lovely review -- you're really in tune with what I was trying to do with Sting, and picked up on some pieces I was only half-aware of putting in. So thanks so much for this, as well as your amazing testing!

There is one small thing to clarify though, about the sailing section:

(Spoiler - click to show)There isn't actually a forced failure -- the race is theoretically winnable! Of course, doing so probably requires going through the sequence a couple of times to figure out all the commands and timing, as well as picking up on one or two semi-hidden tricks, and even then you need to get a little lucky with the random events. I made it this way partially because I wanted to stretch my Inform programming chops and implementing the race as a more open simulation was a good way to do that. But it was also important to me to make victory possible because in retrospect, I think Liz's determined optimism in the face of near-certain defeat is a better ethic than teenaged-Mike's self-protecting fatalism. And while it's almost certainly the case that we lost that race, I don't remember that for sure, so it fit my self-imposed rules to keep the possibility open.

Again, cheers for this -- it made my day (which is especially nice, since it's our birthday tomorrow and that brings up some feelings!)
ChrisM, December 2, 2021 (updated December 3, 2021) - Reply
Crumbs! Just goes to show my attitude in the face of adversity: if at first you don't succeed, try a couple more times and then give up. Thanks for the clarification, I have edited accordingly.
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