One of the things I love about the IF competition is that its emphasis on shorter lengths of work allows and encourages experimentation. Life on Beal Street, if nothing else, is certainly an interesting experiment. It’s a different kind of computer-aided fiction, one in which the computer starts with a preset opening paragraph, then randomly chooses a second paragraph from a set of five available, then a third from a different set of five, and so on until it randomly chooses an ending. Together, these paragraphs make up a narrative arc whose plot couldn’t be simpler (protagonist walks down a street and arrives at a house) and the majority of whose action takes place inside the PC’s head. This action always follows the same pattern — start walking, think about person X, think about person Y, think about yourself, arrive at your destination and see what happens. The player’s role is to prompt the computer to make its next random selection, ostensibly by choosing to continue walking down the street.
The game’s greatest asset is that all of the paragraphs in the various sets are written very well indeed. The author does an excellent job of capturing that feeling of reverie, of walking down a street while thinking intensely about one’s own life, the very features of the street triggering and shaping the direction of the thoughts. The descriptions of the characters on whom the protagonist ruminates, and what those descriptions imply about the PC itself, are evocative and well-judged. Moreover, the delicate balancing act of providing an ungendered PC, onto which the player can project his or her own gender and sexual orientation, is done very well here, especially considering the fact that the game deals directly with interpersonal and even sexual subject matter. At its best, Life on Beal Street provides a sort of kaleidoscopic effect after a few playings, giving us a glimpse of the myriad ways in which we might understand our own lives, ourselves, and our relationships with others. There are some flaws, of course. I wish the game hadn’t chosen “Beal” as the name of its street, as it is distractingly reminiscent of the famous Beale Street in Memphis. I would have had similar problems with “Life on Rudeo Drive” or “Life on Madeson Avenue”. Also, there is one point where the computer unexpectedly says “* NO CHOICES DEFINED *”, though as far as I could tell there were as many (or as few) choices defined as ever.
And in fact, that brings up the game’s largest flaw of all. It isn’t, in any meaningful sense, interactive fiction. Yes, the author works hard to emphasize that the choice between continuing to walk the street and turning back is a real one, just like those we make in everyday life. This is true enough in itself, but as a claim for interactivity, it’s a crock. What it amounts to, more or less, is a choice between reading the next paragraph and quitting the game. These limited options make Life on Beal Street no more interactive than a book. There is one more possibility, which is the opportunity to say “no” to a chosen paragraph and have the computer spit out a new one, but that turns to be the equivalent of continuing to draw paragraphs from a hat until you realize that the hat is empty. Thus, in the final analysis the appeal of Life on Beal Street is quite fleeting. There’s a wonderful sense of openness and excitement in the first few plays, one which quickly contracts as paragraphs start to repeat, and finally shuts down entirely as you search through the whole thing brute-force to find any text you haven’t yet seen. Once you’ve done this, the game becomes just an interesting novelty whose possibilities have been exhausted. It’s definitely worth the download, but don’t expect to keep it long.