Bee

Bee
Bee, by Emily Short
Bee, by Emily Short

Bee, by Emily Short, uses the Varytale platform to produce a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style tale that’s insightful and compelling.

On account of having a busy life, I only just recently got around to playing Bee, Emily Short‘s interactive book on the Varytale platform. Varytale is one of a number of recent attempts to make a modern, computerised system for “choose your own adventure“-style fiction, alongside the likes of Undum, Choice Of Games, and my personal favourite, Twine/Twee. As a beta author for the platform, Emily was invited to put her book on the front page of the Varytale website, and it’s well worth a look.

Bee is the story of a young girl, home-schooled by her frugal and religious parents. After a few short and somewhat-linear opening chapters, options are opened up to the reader… and it doesn’t take long before you’re immersed in the protagonist’s life. Her relationships with her sister, her parents, and the children from the local homeschool co-operative and from her church can be explored and developed, while she tries to find time – and motivation – to study for the local, regional and national spelling bees that are her vocational focus.

The choices you make will affect her motivation, her spelling proficiency, and her relationships, and in doing so open up different choices towards one of the book’s four possible endings. But that’s not what makes this piece magical (and, in fact, “choose your own adventure”-style games can actually feel a little limiting to fans of conventional interactive fiction):

Minor spoilers below: you might like to play Bee for yourself, first.

What’s so inspirational about this story is the compelling realism from the characters. Initially, I found it somewhat difficult to relate to them: I know next to nothing about the US education system, don’t “get” spelling bees (apparently they’re a big thing over there), and certainly can’t put myself in the position of a home-schooled American girl with a super-religious family background! But before long, I was starting to really feel for the character and beginning to see how her life fit together.

To begin with, I saw the national spelling bee as a goal, and my “spelling” score as a goal. I read the book like I play The Sims: efficiently balancing the character’s time to keep her motivation up, so that I could get the best out of her cramming sessions with her flashcards. Under my guidance, the character became highly-academic and driven by achievement.

Spelling Bee (British TV show)

Apparently there existed a short-lived British game show called Spelling Bee, which was on television way back in 1938! Click the picture for more information.

After I’d won the local spelling bee with flying colours, I came to understand how the game actually worked. Suddenly, I didn’t need to study so hard any more. Sure, it was important to get some flashcard-time in now and then, but there were bigger things going on: making sure that my little sister got the upbringing that she deserved; doing my bit to ease the strain on my family as financial pressures forced us into an even-more-frugal lifestyle; finding my place among the other children – and adults – in my life, and in the church.

By the time I made it to the national spelling bee, I didn’t even care that I didn’t win. It was almost a bigger deal to my mother than to me. I thought back to the blurb for the story:

Sooner or later, you’re going to lose. Only one person wins the National Spelling Bee each year, so an elementary understanding of the odds means it almost certainly won’t be you.

The only question is when you fail, and why.

Then, everything made a little more sense. This was never a story about a spelling bee. The spelling bee is a framing device. The story is about growing up, and about finding your place in the world, and about coming to an age where you can see that your parents are not all-knowing, not all-understanding, far from perfect and with limits and problems of their own. And it’s a story about what you do with that realisation.

And it’s really pretty good. Go have a play.

Dan Q is a software engineer, a director of a voluntary organisation, a trainee counsellor, a keen geocacher, and an amateur magician. He lives with his partner and her husband in a polyamorous triad, and occasionally finds time to blog.

6 Comments

  1. Claire Q 5 years ago

    I’m really enjoying this so far. It appears to be about the tension between the twin problems of no external judgement, and too much reliance on external judgement. On several levels.

  2. Dan Fabulich 5 years ago

    What makes Twine/Twee your favorite, out of the others you listed?

    • Scatman Dan 5 years ago

      Of those I’ve listed, all have weaknesses. In the case of Choice Of Games, I don’t like the user interface (and the lack of customisability for it) or the licensing restrictions (must be hosted by them): however, I can see how it’s perhaps the easiest established platform for those new to the genre. Their hottest selling feature seems to be their instant “app” output, which is cute but doesn’t interest me personally (I’d far rather see versatile adaptive web applications than yet-another-app, but that’s a personal preference thing: I can see how others enjoy “apps”). It’s been a year or two since I seriously looked at them, though.

      Undum’s my second-favourite, and it’s only its license that I don’t like (the restrictions require a plug for the platform in the footer of your work). Both Undum and Twine/Twee provide a great deal of customisability for those with a Javascipt/HTML/CSS background, and that’s great (although Twine/Twee isn’t always easy to do, owing to the quirks of TiddlyWiki, out to which it compiles).

      I suppose that the final selling point between Undum and Twine/Twee for me is that I’m lucky enough to already be intimately familiar with TiddlyWiki, so I don’t mind the arcane syntax tweaks necessary to highly-customise the output. I’m also (very slowly) working on a tool to convert Twine/Twee-TiddlyWiki output into PDF files reminiscent of traditional choose-your-own gamebooks.

      For a newcomer to the scene, I’d recommend Twine/Twee if they’ve got TiddlyWiki and a little programming experience, Undum if they’ve merely got a little programming experience (or want to learn), and looking elsewhere (Choice Of…? Varytale?) if they haven’t.

      Perhaps I’ll write a blog post on “Choosing Your Own CYO Platform”.

      • Dan Fabulich 5 years ago

        That would certainly be interesting. Please do note that you are allowed to self-host ChoiceScript games for non-commercial purposes. http://www.choiceofgames.com/LICENSE-1.0.txt

        • Scatman Dan 5 years ago

          Thanks for the update: that’s something I didn’t know. Also, a recent glance at Undum suggests that it’s been somewhat abandoned of late: which is a pity, because anything that helps to bring IF to the masses is a win, in my book.