Second game from Spring Thing: Bear Creek, an Inform game by Wes Mode. There will be spoilers.
This comes across, initially, as a sort of nostalgia piece. You’re an eight-year-old girl in the woods in a golden childhood summer, picking berries with your grandparents; the narrator occasionally comments upon the significance some things will have in retrospect.
There’s not a whole lot to do, and a lot of my experience early in the game was the frustrating one of being tied to the coat-tails of overprotective adults and unable to do anything except pick berries, when the whole woods beckon. (Some of this may be personal expectations: when I was eight I was routinely allowed to wander far wider, in country considerably wilder.)
After a while, the world opens up somewhat. Your grandparents live in a trailer park. Its residents are familiar, but they’re all damaged somehow, and there’s a lot of suspicion going around. This is not, in general, a community where people trust their neighbours, particularly with their children. The game suggests the threat of child abuse early on, and it’s a possibility that never really goes away. Through overhearing the conversation of your grandparents, it transpires that the player-character’s mother has an abusive boyfriend, whose abuse is spilling over onto the player-character; the grandparents try to talk guardedly about it, and totally fail. Several of the trailer park’s inhabitants invite you inside their trailers, and while nothing happens if you take them up on it, it doesn’t dispel the sense of wariness either. There’s a big scary dog that gets loose. There’s a lot of foreshadowing, which all seems intended to give an impression of childhood (and particularly female childhood?) as a time of immense vulnerability.
The writing is neither ornate nor elegant; it’s aiming for a kind of childlike simplicity in keeping with its eight-year old author, and mostly this is fine. At times, though, it wobbles a bit:
Grandpa’s shirt and Honey’s portable transistor radio are on the bank under the tree playing music.
Read as written, this suggests that Grandpa’s shirt is providing accompaniment on banjo.
The writing’s decent but unexceptional at the prose level, but the stuff it’s describing is fairly strong. The characters are mostly distinct individuals, not cut-outs, and their personalities are revealed in a natural-feeling manner. The level between overdescription and obscurantism is well-chosen. The woods and trailer park, likewise, feel specific rather than generic without delving too deeply into over-elaborate detail. These are essential elements in really good IF.
Mechanically, it’s a promising first effort: I didn’t encounter any serious bugs or crucial unimplemented items. Where it could be better is at the higher, more difficult-to-define level of geography design and narrative flow. I didn’t always get a really concrete sense of the relative position of locations, or whether I was doing the sorts of things that the game expected, or how to get a handle on NPC interaction. All of these make sense from a characterisation viewpoint – the PC is a child and probably doesn’t have a very solid sense of any of that herself – but taken together they occasionally made the game feel a bit shaky and uncertain.
The songs playing on the radio are a weak point, to my mind – I know that the point is to evoke a particular era, but this is kind of a filmic technique that translates relatively poorly to text. If I can hear a song, I’ll get a general period vibe off it even if I don’t particularly recognise it; in text, however, every song that I can’t identify by name well enough to hum (most of them, in my case; I wasn’t born yet, and Brits have a different pop canon) is pretty much a lost cause. This is exacerbated because the songs are never described beyond titles (and sometimes the protagonist saying that she likes the song.)
The biggest problem, though, is that it ends on a To Be Continued note, as the protagonist is lost in the woods, suggesting that the next chapter will be about outdoors survival. I didn’t feel that this was a good breaking-point at all; it’s very much the end of Act 1, not the end of Book 1 or Episode 1 – so far everything has been all build and no resolution, which makes it difficult to draw very many conclusions. In other words, this would have been a strong Introcomp entry, but it’s a little disappointing as a Spring Thing piece.