Spring Thing Festival 2015: first impressions / blurb-judging

Venerable interactive fiction event The Spring Thing has pulled a radical rebranding this year, from ‘like IF Comp with a higher bar’ to ‘like the IF Artshow, but without the categories.’ As a licensed Fretter About Community Event Organisation, I am very, very interested in how this works out; I think it’s excellent news that Spring Thing is moving to carve out a more distinctive niche, and the changes reflect a lot of conversations that have been held over the years about what makes comps productive, compelling, or welcoming. Let’s see where this goes.

First of all: look at how nice the new site looks. LOOK AT IT. This is almost as good-looking as Aaron Reed himself. Seriously, this is how attractive the site makes a game look with zero graphic exertion on the author’s part:

springexample(Actually, it doesn’t look quite as nice with the covers themselves. If I ever made a game for Spring Thing, I will be damn sure to include a variant cover with a milky-jade palette just to look pretty on the site.)

Blurbs are a punishingly hard form of writing – as much emotionally as anything else. By the time you come to write one, you’re likely to be way too close to the work to give a sober assessment of your work, let alone boil it down into a digestible and appealing form that captures the essence of the game while still leaving the reader curious.

As a writer, I suck at blurbs. They’re probably the most unpleasant part of the writing process. As a player, though, I’m looking for particular things out of them:

  • What the game is about. This is a fine balance – you may not want to spoil your game, but being overly coy or vague is unhelpful. Genre is your friend here, because genre largely exists as a marketing/advertising tool. However, you also need:
  • What the coolest thing about the game is. Why I should be specially excited to play this game. (Genre is your enemy here.)
  • Capable writing. If you can craft a well-turned sentence in your blurb, that bodes well for the game itself.
  • Direction for players. One of the difficulties of IF as a game medium is that individual games are quite variable in their basic structure of play, and in how they’re meant to be read. This is one of the cool things about the medium – it allows for a much broader range than you can typically squeeze into, say, FPS or tower-defence – but it can make games difficult to figure out. Guidance helps.

Things I am not looking for include:

  • The author talking about themselves, their relationship to the work or their creative process. That might become interesting to me after I’ve played the game – I love a good in-depth postmortem, particularly of a work I liked. But it’s not much use in presenting the game.

Mere Anarchy: Neither the blurb nor the cover art tell me a great deal. The title is a familiar quote from the most-quotable Yeats poem.

Mere Anarchy is an interactive story about magic, struggle, and choice.

The art suggests occult stuff, which together with the Yeats line probably means that the box is some kind of Pandora deal. The ‘here are my themes!’ sentence probably confirms that, although listing ‘choice’ as a theme of an IF game isn’t really saying a lot.

The author’s comment usefully offers some tips about the game’s structure and how that should affect my approach to play.

Sunrise: Lady Sofia, jeez, if you dump someone and then promptly go out with their hot sibling you don’t get to use ‘jilted beau.’ You are now in celeb-magazine / daytime-TV territory and require phrases like ‘two-timing ex’ and ‘love rat’, no matter how many cameo pearl chokers and elbow-length gloves you own.

The blurb is good in that it gives us a pretty clear idea of the kind of story we’re getting. It uses its genre keywords neatly, although ‘visual novel’ is fairly broad when it comes to what kind of gameplay to expect. A phrase like ‘widely-branching’ or ‘stat-based’ or ‘kinetic’ would go a long way here.

The plot synopsis itself is a slightly awkward run-on sentence: try reading it aloud. Is Sofia’s life in jeopardy, or is she in a new relationship with it? I think it would have been clearer to unpack this into an additional sentence.

Also, the warning is not very helpful. ‘Some graphic violence and sexual themes’ could mean anything! ‘Graphic violence’ doesn’t just mean any depiction of violence; it means that it’s depicted in a vivid and brutal manner, but this seems unlikely for a work that uses phrases like ‘jilted beau’ and ‘dicey court politics.’ ‘Sexual themes’ is another word notable mostly for studied vagueness. My best guess is that this is just a game that’s nervous about the low level of implied naughtiness that it contains? But the blurb also kind of implies some stalker-like behaviour on the part of the jilted beau, which could make things considerably darker; and that’s the kind of thing that certain readers will really want to be warned about.

A Trial: I got a look at a beta version of this (and sort of squinted and failed to say anything useful in the time available.) The title is a big ol’ HERE IS A KAFKA GAME thing; the blurb is essentially ‘this is e-lit and I’m not going to explain it.’

The cover art is sort of aggressively unstylish. The black bar at the top feels like a conscious design element, but the boots awkwardly overflow the frame, as if they’ve been shoved in your face. It took me three or four looks at it to realise that the boots were sitting on a stovetop, and I’m not sure whether this is meant to be a ‘feet to the fire’ reference or not. There are faces, happy and sad, drawn on the duct-tape holding the boots together, but it takes a few minutes to notice that, and another few to be sure that they’re not just the result of accidental tears. The 2:42 of the oven clock draws the eye, but doesn’t have any obvious meaning. Knackered, patched-up boots are a venerable symbol of – and remain a symptom of – poverty.

Doggerland: I am in favour of more autobiographical works in IF. I assume that Alan DeNiro’s autobiography is liable to be a non-stop parade of dark magical realism, and the blurb does not discourage me from this assumption.

To me, the art mostly puts me in mind of Riddley Walker – little shining man! h(e)art of the wood! The grainy quality mostly makes me think of HyperCard, or possibly the cover for a 90s band’s first demo CD, via the office printer.

Ruiness: This is a presentation that pretty much says ‘all you need to know is that this is a Porpentine game. We done here?’

Toby’s Nose: Oh, hey, this might very well be that Perfume-like game about a scent detective that I keep expecting to exist (and that Nostrils of Flesh and Clay awesomely wasn’t). I’m honestly not sure how you can make a game about scent-based detection and not have it mostly be about the forensic analysis of wanking and farts. Jenni Polodna, please write Crime Fart Investigation.

The presentation here suggests that it’s not going to be anywhere near as icky as ‘Perfume detective’ might suggest: it seems lighter, possibly goofy-light, possibly for children? The art style is a bit Edward Gorey, a bit children’s-illustration; the signals are at slight cross-purposes. That mass of scratchy black silhouettes feels pretty sinister, but the writing has a perky simplicity.

The Back Garden

…is a selection of works not judged, and with fewer restrictions.

Dirk: This is up-front about being a jokey demake; it’s coy about specifying which, but on second glance it offers links making it’s clear that this is Dragon’s Lair. The main things I know about Dragon’s Lair are from Jimmy Maher’s discussion of it, in which I discovered that it was a) ridiculously successful for a very brief period, b) that it was kind of awful as both game and narrative, and c) that it is a strong contender for Worst Damsel Ever. We shall see.

Aspel: Seltani has seemed interesting to me for a while, but I haven’t quite figured out its sweet spot – I haven’t quite seen anything that has much of a narrative, or and the works that are principally about the Myst-like setting and atmospherics haven’t been quite big enough to make exploration exciting.

This is, as you might expect, a very carefully-balanced blurb – offering some strong indicators about the kind of story this is while not giving too much away about the plot, and picking out some reasons to be interested to be excited about this thing in particular, with separate synopses for game-design veterans and more general audiences. Multiplayer, hmm. Iiiiinteresting.

Missing Since ’77: This pitches itself as a straightforward disappearance-mystery. ‘A prodigious young detective’ sounds a little like a character from The Curious Sofa. It doesn’t offer much about why we should be interested in this mystery.

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5 Responses to Spring Thing Festival 2015: first impressions / blurb-judging

  1. Blurbs are really atrociously hard to write, and after finishing Mere Anarchy I was just about willing to write anything other than a blurb for it. So I settled for being intentionally mysterious and using in-game text instead of trying to explain. I kind of struggle with my own desire of having readers go in mostly blind, relative to the necessities of convincing players to start the game at all.

  2. >This is almost as good-looking as Aaron Reed himself.

    I’d like to officially announce that the Organizer’s Choice ribbon for Most Insightful Design Critique goes to Sam Ashwell.

  3. Jason Dyer says:

    Just a strong contender?

    If Dragon’s Lair were in the XYZZY Awards for Worst Damsel Ever, it’d be one of those categories where it was the only nominee.

  4. Matt W (not matt w) says:

    “This is a presentation that pretty much says ‘all you need to know is that this is a Porpentine game. We done here?’”

    And you get just about exactly what you expect.

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