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About the Story
extraordinary_fandoms.exe tells the story of Pinecone, their friendships on Discordant, & how those friendships helped them through difficult times.
57th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Number of Reviews: 4
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(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)
This is the second game I’ve played in the comp that explores issues of identity and trauma via online fandom, after A Paradox Between Worlds. The two make for an interesting study in contrasts, because while I thought Paradox was overstuffed with characters and plotlines, to the detriment of its strongest narrative throughline, I found extraordinary_fandoms.exe erred on the side of minimalism. Everything outside its core story is only briefly sketched in, with the titular fandom and characters other than the protagonist feeling rather sketched-in, and no obvious places where choices lead to much variation, even at a cosmetic level.
There are advantages to focus – and since, per the author’s postscript, a lot of the (awful) details of domestic abuse here are autobiographical, it’s completely understandable that everything else would fade in importance. But for me, the absence of context supporting the story meant it didn’t land as strongly as it could, though it is compellingly drawn. The central conflict is about the main character – who goes by the handle Pinecone – finding what seems like their first real friends via a Discord-style chat server and wiki dedicated to an anime franchise. Pinecone’s halting steps towards self-confidence and self-awareness are affecting, and the link between their struggles and those of the fandom character they gravitate to – who suffers from hidden low self-esteem – makes thematic sense. And it’s heartwarming to see the affirmation and support Pinecone gets from the other people on the server.
But the other characters feel pretty thin; there are maybe half a dozen folks who hang out to chat and do (short) roleplay, but outside of their favorite anime characters they don’t have much in the way of personality. And there’s a very stark divide between Pinecone’s home life, which is portrayed as unremittingly horrible, and things on the server, where everyone is uniformly and immediately positive, with never even the slightest disagreement about how best support them. Ultimately I thought the game works, but this flatness robs it of some of its power.
Highlight: The choices aren’t a major focus of extraordinary_fandom.exe, with many passages connected by a single “continue” link or its equivalent, and most others just having two choices that amount to very slightly different ways of saying the same thing – which is all fine. But this low-key approach to choices helps set up an effective moment that I’m going to spoiler-block: (Spoiler - click to show)at one point as the other folks on the server are asking Pinecone whether they can help, you’re offered two choices: “No” or “No”. The moment conveys the paralysis that often comes with being in an abusive environment in a show-don’t-tell way that the rest of the game sometimes struggles to achieve.
Lowlight: The “.exe” in the title really bugs me. I don’t really know how Discord works, but I think it’s like an IRC channel, right? And the wiki is a wiki. So what’s the executable program?
How I failed the author: I didn’t have any issues playing through the game, but Henry’s been struggling with gas today, so I’ve started and stopped writing this review like eight times as I’ve jumped up to soothe him after he woke up crying from what seemed like a perfectly nice nap. Apologies if it’s disjointed as a result!
EFE in the big picture can be tied up pretty quickly. It's a story about someone who finds friends and relief on a Discord server. They learn to code. They become a part of something. Their life takes a big jump. The different dialogue choices seems trivial. If you're worldly wise and cynical, it's all a bit too simple. And yet it works. Maybe it would wear out its welcome if I read more like it, but as of now, I can take it for what it is, and certain parts resonated with me. A lot of times I caught myself saying "No, no, it's all more complex than that." Strictly speaking, yes. But then, the voice that said that was partially influenced by Authority Figures (including a few younger than me) from way back when, who muddied things on purpose and who didn't let me enjoy small victories. They were melodramatic and oversimplified in their own way, which was far worse. And EFE helped me push back on that, so I'm glad it's there.
It's presented as a sequence of brief chats where pinecone logs into a Discordant chat server, introduces themselves, hits it off with other fans of C-Project, which is a totally fictitious anime, and begins doing some role playing and offers to help with what is a pretty downtrodden wiki. They doesn't know coding, but others are happy to help them learn. Pinecone doesn't know everything about CSS and thus makes makes oversights, and that's okay. This was probably the part that hit most for me, because my experience with coding was first, learning BASIC, and then feeling guilty I wanted to learn about graphics or other neat stuff to make games instead of the Real Stuff that Pushed Research Forward and Took Advantage of Given Opportunities. I remember being in a summer program after 8th grade where other kids and I learned Pascal, and the instructor was noticeably cool on me wanting to just make branching-story games. Even back then there was a lot of one-upmanship, of bragging about what they knew without passing the knowledge on, of playing both sides of the coin: "Boy! This is hard! I must be smart to figure it out!" and "Boy! How'd you not know that? I know that! Everyone knows that!" It's nowhere near the abuse Pinecone suffers, of course, but it is there, and it's unnecessary, and those CSS guru-ing sessions worked well for me as a reader and person. I'm glad it's out there, and I'm a bit jealous I missed out on it.
It never struck me that the "accelerated" class and competition were, in fact, inadequate for my needs, because it wasn't just about helping you get ahead, but about competition, and the people at the bottom got looked down on. Pinecone gets that every day from their father. So I can relate. For me it was just a "fun" summer program and a high school class that left me thinking I wasn't a "real" coder. It persisted through college when I learned HTML on my own but felt I didn't have the passion for real programming that other students in the computer lab did. And later when part of code reviews, I was unable to disassociate the jostling for power and "haha look what you did wrong" or "You DO know THIS, right? EVERYBODY knows this!" or "this is easy, easy enough you better not ask me again if you forget" from legitimate "hey, look how to do this" or "hey, let's throw in some details." It's not easy to blend just showing someone cool stuff with pushing them forward, and while EFE doesn't explore this rigorously, it does establish that role-playing, etc., can lead to people wanting to learn to code, and no, that code doesn't have to be super-abstract or impressive, and part of learning to code is, in fact, learning what shortcuts people ahead of you took and which ones worked for you. There's a parallel with making friends: some people act as though it is very hard to make real, good friends. It is, in a way. But people who act like coding or friendship is a series of trials they deserve to dish out to others? Well, that's not abuse, but it's certainly not a good thing.
And Pinecone seems to be learning to accept this. While I think there were too many choices that were too-similar, having a few, especially between plain thanks and "gee, really, wow" established that Pinecone is the sort of person who worries over choices that don't make a difference, because they can't help it. Perhaps if they said something different, their parents would've behaved better. Really, Pinecone should pay more attention to their own family! Of course, when Pinecone needs to say something different, it had better not be TOO different, because that gets you looked at funny, or whatever. We've all had people who played these mind games, where we just have to say the right thing, but we have no chance. And it gets in the way of accepting situations devoid of such mind games. Some, I found hard to accept at first, or if I stuck with them, I rationalized why they wouldn't last. Pinecone is able to accept this in the end. I've learned to, too. It seems to be fertile ground for a lot of stories, and I wish EFE would have explored it a bit more.
One thing I want to add–I usually hate timed text, but it works well here. So often in twine it feels like an implicit "Hey! Listen up! No, you can listen up better than THAT," but here, it signifies a legitimate break when Pinecone disconnects from Discordant and probably doesn't want to, but real life must take over for a bit. As the story goes on, I wondered what sort of awfulness Pinecone's parents were up to each time Pinecone logged off.
The result was a work that didn't get in my personal space telling me whom I have to sympathize and why. In fact, it's nice to picture Pinecone learning how to deal with personal space and not worry about getting in others', both implicitly and with any creative works. It still gave me something to write about: here and for my own private journals. I got some good snarky lines in at people that don't remember me. I wrote stuff about learning coding that doesn't belong here. The main thing? Just knowing that "simple" games do, indeed, work, and you don't have to be a super-brilliant coder to make others' lives better, makes me happy. I don't necessarily need a super behind-the-scenes look. I just still appreciate the affirmation that not really being able to get stuff done around certain people isn't my fault. Like the guy in the accelerated summer class who got called "Yes, Sir, Mr. Studly Aaron, Sir." No, I wasn't lazy or jealous of his brilliancy. Yes, I'm kind of glad I forgot his last name so I can't Google it.
So my take-away is that the fandom itself isn't extraordinary, though Pinecone's jump in life quality is pretty phenomenal when given something like normalcy. Pinecone seems to have learned that sort of interaction shouldn't be seen as extraordinary. Perhaps the work is too black-and-white about abusive parents and a supportive teen social group and how quickly things can change. Perhaps I'm jealous I never had that fully supportive teen group. Let's just say there were oddities in my family life, and kids in the Smart Classes said "boy, in case you're not lying, you're dumb to sit there and accept that. Oh, also, shut up and be grateful for advanced classes." Or it's too optimistic, about the turnaround Pinecone's friends help her achieve, and Things Don't (Usually) Work That Way. Yes, there are probably diminishing returns to scale if I would read too many similar works. Yes, reading too many might put me in a dreamland that prevents me from doing stuff.
But it is worth finding a work, or a community, that hits that sweet spot just when you got cynical, where you seem to be good at something and it feels like it's no big deal, but it is, to other people. It is believable, far more than the standard "if you believe it, you can achieve it" melodramas with a rags-to-riches story. Someone quite simply finds acceptance, acceptance most of us think we need, but we figure it's not enough. Here, it is. Pinecone finds a niche and doesn't worry about who has more Programming Experience Points or whatever. Maybe Pinecone never takes on super-big projects or reaches the top. But Pinecone finds acceptance and peace. And even though I felt EFE may have cut corners or left something out (maybe for a sequel, perhaps, when the author has had more time to reflect on things,) I want to label it as a Good Thing well worth looking through for someone who feels blocked from learning new coding. Yes, it felt too general at times, and I felt the author may've holding back the sort of important details that are hard to write down. Perhaps exploring Pinecone's doubt more, or what their parents would think of such a project, or Pinecone fixing other stuff they missed, would be a good idea for a follow-up work.
This game is meant to emulate an older teenager or young adult hopping on Discord and hanging out with friends by talking about a Japanese virtual idol group and making a wiki together.
The friendships in the game are uncomplicated and straightforwardly positive. All drama and tension come from the (Spoiler - click to show)abusive situation that the author finds themself in.
I feel like the representation of discord is accurate, and overall the writing was authentic.
The display was a bit puzzling; it's flat white text on a flat white background with no special styling or extra polish. The puzzling part is that one of the major focuses of the game is the protagonist's growth in the use of CSS, with the code listed in-game. Why not use CSS to make the game itself look fancier?
Finally, I feel a bit spoiled here, as one of my favorite games from last year (Lore Distance Relationship, which I voted for in several XYZZY awards) was also about fandoms and also treated the same real-life scenario (the authors are siblings). This game, while having emotional authenticity, doesn't have the same depth and polish of last year's game. But I am glad that both seem to be in a better situation.