Reiko's Ramblings and Writings

What I'm reading and writing about lately.

IFComp 2015 Review: Birdland

Posted by Reiko on November 30, 2015

This is a review of a game from the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Birdland
Author: Brendan Patrick Hennessey
Format: Web – Twine

I played the “kinda sorta prequel”, Bell Park, Youth Detective, in the comp two years ago, and while I liked that one, I thought at the time that it was a bit shallow (but I never went back and played a post-comp release so I don’t know how much it may have been improved later, too). Anyway, this one is longer and much better. The dialogue really nails the quirky things bored teen girls might say at an anti-technology summer camp. And the initial sense of something weird going on gradually escalates over the six days of camp until the REALLY DEFINITELY WRONG thing happens. I really liked the structure of the work, with three activities each day, and then a dream each night, until the last day, when all six of the activities we’d been seeing came into play.

I personally had two issues, which might not bother other people, but hey, this is my opinion. Minor spoilers here, since I want to talk about relationships and then mechanics.

Relationships first. I don’t really want to say too much about the thing between Bridget and Bell, but really, did it have to turn out that way? In retrospect, the only foreshadowing I saw was the whole awkward thing where Bridget doesn’t like any of the boys at the camp but doesn’t want to say anything and ends up lying about it, which backfires in her face. Sure, this later can be understood to mean that she doesn’t like boys at all, but why can’t she just not be interested in any of those particular boys? Some girls just aren’t interested at that age, or maybe the boys are all jerks.

Anyway, until the campfire scene near the end, I didn’t see any particular indication that the relationship was heading that direction rather than a regular female best friend relationship. (Side note: was there an indication of Bell’s orientation in her story? I don’t remember it very clearly. Was Cassidy even in it? Still, Birdland should stand on its own and not be dependent on context from the previous game.) I also had to wonder at the end what Bell even saw in Bridget. Bell’s a confident youth detective with dozens of cases solved already, and Bridget honestly seems pretty inept at everything, at least at camp. She succeeded at the end, but mostly by luck and exploiting the weird behavior of the instructors, and not by actual skill at anything.

Actually, it just occurred to me that Birdland was subtle enough about their relationship that I’d have been happier if the ending had been as ambiguous as the first two-thirds of the game, so that people who prefer to see gay relationships everywhere can see it that way if they like, and people who might not automatically make that assumption aren’t jarred into a different interpretation at the end. Or, be less subtle from the beginning. If it had been clearer from the beginning about Bridget, then I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Or if the story had been about Bridget discovering how she felt, that’s another thing. But the story wasn’t really about that, and the relationship seemed to take an abrupt turn near the end. That’s what bothered me, that it seemed like Bell was kissing Bridget out of nowhere and Bridget was fine with it. It’s kind of a fundamental thing to know about a PC, I think, if it’s going to affect the story.

Second, mechanics. Like I said, Bridget seemed pretty inept at all the camp activities. It seemed like the statistics were able to give an edge sometimes, but rarely, and I often didn’t have the right statistic boosted. After the first couple of dreams, I tried a bit harder to aim for certain statistics that I thought might be helpful, but in the end, I couldn’t tell if anything made any difference. I had no idea what kinds of activities in the dreams would boost which statistics, and I didn’t know which statistics would be helpful. Before the Olympics, I ended up with three statistics at max and three at min, but I don’t know if it’s balanced such that it will always turn out that way.

After I finished the first time, I noticed that any chapter can be viewed independently, so that means that while there is state tracking that determines whether certain specific options are available at the time, the results of using those options doesn’t affect the flow of the story. I jumped in and replayed the Olympics section, and observed that no matter what I did, all options were only cosmetic; the result was the same no matter what. So knowing that, I feel like this was a really well-written story, but the interactivity could be better. There were a lot of choices, but none were really meaningful. There wasn’t even a choice about how to respond to Bell.

Time: 1 hour
Scoring: base 7, +1 for realistic dialogue, +1 for six-fold structure, -1 for lack of meaningful choices, -1 for jarring relationship shift
Score: 7

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