Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bronze and Interactive Fiction

For a class I am currently taking, we were required to play through a piece of interactive fiction called Bronze, by Emily Short. You can download it here to play through it yourself, though if you don't have Zoom (on Mac/Unix) or Frotz (on Windows), you'll need to download that first in order to play. They are linked on the same page as Bronze. Alternatively, there is a Frotz app for iPhone/iTouch (and possibly other devices) that comes with Bronze, if you prefer a portable version.

I fell utterly in love with the piece, or game, if you will. After playing through Bronze, we were required to write reviews about it, and I am offering mine here. Please note that if you want to play though it spoiler-free, you should play it BEFORE you read the following. You don't have to play it at all to read what I have written, of course.


After playing through Emily Short’s Bronze, an interactive fiction take on Beauty and the Beast, and achieving its four endings, I had to go watch Disney’s happy version of the story to cure my daydreams of Bronze’s haunting and vivid twists. The characters, rooms, and objects crafted by Short form a deep and disturbing world, fitted with puzzles that effectively engage the reader and force exploration of the text-based castle.

In this version of the story, the player becomes the protagonist, the nameless Beauty, who is returning from a week-long visit to her troubled sisters and negligent father. It is darker than the usual love story, and is presented in fragments. Examining objects and looking around rooms gives bits of the background between Beauty and the Beast, using Beauty’s memories as a creative way of giving information. A contract book, a room full of castle records, and the personal notes of an enchantress named Lucrezia provide more direct information. Finally, once the player dons Lucrezia’s shoes, the Beast occasionally invades on the protagonist’s thoughts with commentary and further story. These methods of delivery are indirect, elegant, and rewarding - the more the player seeks, the more the player will find.

The built-in puzzles force the player to seek more, and to explore the castle. The first puzzle is simple – locate the Beast. The Beast, however, can appear in one of many of the rooms that are open to the player when the game begins, and will not appear until half have been searched, so that the player is forced to explore. Each further puzzle presented involves a goal, and its sub-goals. To destroy the contract book and free the servants, one must enter the crypt, but a complicated string of tasks is required before the player can bring light into its darkness. Each series of tasks opens more rooms, more of the story, and more possible endings, until one of the four finales is achieved.

Though it is easy to get lost in the story, it is not so easy to get lost in the castle, thanks to a few innovations. The castle has fifty-five rooms, and spans multiple floors, but Short evidently wanted the complexity to enhance the story without furthering the confusion. She included a status bar that shows the name of the current room, how many rooms have been visited, the total number of rooms, the directions the player can go from the current location, and which directions the player has already visited. That makes it easy to walk the castle and keep the compass directions straight. The directions are always stable; if the player leaves a room by going west, going east again will return the player to the original room. Short also included a special “go to” command which, when followed by the name of a room or object that the player has seen, will bring the player directly to that room or object. After all, the protagonist has allegedly lived in the castle for some years; the player is merely drawing on her knowledge.

The protagonist at first appears to be in love with the Beast, which plays on expectation. As the story is revealed, the relationship between the two seems more tenuous. Dialogue plays its part here, when the player is shown old conversations between the characters, when the player finds and wakes the Beast, and when he speaks to the protagonist via the magic shoes. He seems remorseful, and when the protagonist summons the woman who enchanted him, she learns why. All the endings reveal Beauty’s ambivalence regarding the Beast, which is the author’s intent – the only bronze object in the game is the one that viciously destroys the Beast.

The subtlety and complexity of the story, characters, and location of Bronze create a gripping piece of interactive fiction, and the puzzles lead the player through the tale and the castle like an enchantment. I couldn’t put it down until I’d reached every ending.

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