Birdland, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy, is playable here:

(Birdland is another Twine game, but a much more complex and multi-branching one than most of the Twine I’ve played so far. It has a statistics system, where the choices that the reader makes have a direct influence on what further choices they will be able to make. I note that it has enormous replay value, something that is new to me in IF that I’ve read.)

There’s been a whole lot of press and positive buzz about Birdland, and I am not likely to be original in my effusive praise of the thing, but I have been having a lot of thoughts about the nature of the interactive part of interactive fiction, especially after my experience with First Draft of the Revolution, and Birdland is an example of something I’m still struggling to articulate: how to manage character creation and ‘game’ elements while keeping a consistent narrative voice and a cohesive sense of the protagonist’s personality.

So this is less of a review and more of a meditation on style.

Birdland manages this balance between interactive elements and cohesion elements effortlessly, and I think there are very specific reasons it does so. First, the choices the reader is permitted to make are fairly broad-spectrum (i.e. a binary branch between ‘Appeal to their common piratehood’ and ‘Get into a bloody battle’, when confronted with rival pirates in a dream sequence) and their link to the shifts in protagonist statistics is not at all obvious. (While being deceptive in a dream sequence might seem to lead to an increase in your GUILE attribute, it can also lead to unexpected but highly logical reductions in that attribute.) The reader’s choices feel naturalistic within the story – not so gamified that they become frustrated with an inability to micromanage the mechanics, but gamified enough that each choice feels consequential.

Secondly, all the choices are embedded in the voice of Birdland, and this is the real genius of the story: the extremely distinct, black humor/absurdist horror tonality which is consistent across every choice, no matter how strange. This is a weird game. I mean, it’s a game about summer camp, except it’s also about sentient bird-alien things which are trying to break the universe, and I suspect it bears a genetic kinship with Hatoful Boyfriend, a visual novel which is also about sentient bird-alien things which are trying to break the universe. But Birdland has at its heart a story about a young woman figuring out the sort of person she wants to be, and overcoming the difficulties of being shy, or weak, or scared, and maybe falling in love, and maybe solving a mystery. And all of that is encompassed in the voice of the narration, which combines a genuineness and an absurdity which effectively unites all of the disparate choices that the reader can make.

As the story moves from (basically) realistic towards a state of surrealist blur between dream-state and the summer camp, it maintains the same slightly wry, YA-esque tonality. Birdland is a very inviting story; it is fun to read, and fun to negotiate, and one gets to be a pirate captain and also have hilarious adventures with a canoe paddle, and at the beginning the absurdity of what is going on feels entirely like the absurdity of being a teenager stuck in a situation with inexplicable adults. When those inexplicable adults turn out to not be proper adults at all, but something else entirely, the development feels entirely organic. It is this cohesion of voice which provides for the cohesion of protagonist personality, despite the fact that Birdland has one of the most gamelike mechanics of any IF story I’ve played through.

If I’ve got a conclusion here, it’s that my thinking about ‘games’ and ‘interactivity’ is fundamentally tied up with how immersive I feel like a narrative really is – whether I feel as if I am working against the grain of the mechanic or whether the mechanic fits seamlessly inside the authorial tone.

I think I need to play a parser or a limited parser next, and see whether voice has as much influence there as it seems to in Twine games.