IF Comp 2019: A Blue Like No Other

A Blue Like No Other (Dan Cox, web) is a short piece told through an education game. The idea is that you’re doing digital archaeology on an old piece of unpublished language-teaching software, but All Is Not As It Seems.

So you have a text exchange with someone, and they say: can you check out this old software for me, rumour is the author was some old lady who hid her novel-in-progress in it. And then that is exactly what happens: the samples of text in which you have to find basic grammatical features are excerpts from a lesbian adventure romance, getting progressively longer as you proceed further through the lessons. The excerpts, which are make up the majority of the game’s text, are serviceable but unexceptional genre writing about star-crossed love at first sight.

This would have been a decent joke if it had been allowed to develop as a surprise, without the setup giving the punchline away; it would have been a better joke if the game’s end hadn’t felt the need to spell out exactly how these excerpts made their way into the game.

As a character story about the author, there isn’t really enough to go on here! We can say, OK, it seems likely that someone who a) was a woman in the 80s who b) authored unsuccessful educational software and c) wrote lesbian romance, maybe had some disappointments in her life.  Maybe? But you can’t really tell much: the smut that people read or write doesn’t generally tell you an awful lot about them, especially if (as here) it’s moderately competent and not real weird. If this had been a real-life discovery, it’d be evocative and fascinating (and the takes about it would take over my twitter feed for at least an afternoon); as a piece of standalone fiction it’s not quite a mouthful.

What it feels most like is a demonstration or portfolio piece, intended either to show how a small story could be told through a user-interface format, or to demonstrate the ability to do it. As a self-contained story in its own right, it’s too slight to satisfy. What the experience most reminded me of was the micro-narratives that you get from reading consoles in Fallout games: there’s really just a situation, an issue and a conclusion, often not really even a twist, just enough to suggest a little bit of character and deliver a narrative. But the thing about those stories is that they’re not really self-contained: they exist on computer consoles that you’ve found in a ruin, and a lot of their role is to insert humanity into the abandoned environment you find them in, to see the ruins as formerly inhabited places rather than a game environment that exists so that you can shoot ghouls in it.

Interface-wise, there are some issues! The main mechanic of the learning game is to find and click on specified words, but this is somehow very janky and clicking only worked maybe one time in four; I figured that I could skip past this annoying step by switching into my messages and then back to the lesson-choice screen. It’s possible that this broke something else and meant that I missed something out of the story, but judging by the source this seems unlikely.

So I think this falls into the 3-4 zone! It’s not badly made, it just makes very little attempt to do much more than sketch out its premise.

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