[I originally reviewed this game for the XYZZY Awards, as part of a project to review all the 2012 nominees for Best Writing.]
IFDB page: Bee
Because it uses the Varytale format rather than the more traditional parser-based approach, Bee has the opportunity to inject writing into the choice mechanism itself, and Emily Short uses this opportunity to the fullest. The choices in Bee tell us something about its PC in a way that the “>” prompt cannot. More than that, they give us clues about how we are shaping the PC. Take, for instance, the choices that appear after the PC’s father complains about having to drink chocolate milk in public school, even when he was forbidden chocolate for Lent:
The world isn’t always on our side.
Bet the other kids made fun of Father.
Having to drink chocolate milk is a pretty whiny thing to complain about.
The first option steers toward a PC who is earnestly trying to absorb her parents’ lessons and reflect them back, both to show them that she has done so and because she honestly believes it. It also reinforces the barricaded quality her family has adopted, with the good and true people on one side of the wall, and “the world” on the other. The second option reveals a PC whose immediate response is compassion. However, it also highlights her liminal place as an adolescent. (L I M I N A L, an intermediate state, phase, or condition.) She’s advanced to the age where her parents have become fallible, and she can impose upon herself uncomfortable thoughts of them as children, subject to childhood torments and humiliation.
The third option, on the other hand, takes her adolescent quality in a different direction, finding the ridiculousness in her father’s complaint. In this direction, we see her separating from her parents by opposing them rather than awkwardly pitying them. And her (very funny) response of “I hear that Roman Christians were also forced to drink chocolate milk in the arena” gets a predictably chilly reception.
Other choices are noteworthy for they way they seem to be having a conversation with each other — “Possibly Lettice is not the sharpest. / Then again, she’s your only natural ally.” Some passages where there is only one choice available (at least, based on the particular attributes of my playthrough) still used that choice to provide a moment of reflection and pacing for the prose. (e.g “Ah, rhetorical terms. Now you’re on familiar ground.” in the “Are you a feminist?” scene.) Finally, I was struck by the presence of certain choices greyed-out, with reasons attached. We see this during the spelling bees — the better a speller the PC is, the more options are greyed-out — but also in more character-building ways:
While you work you make up stories in your head.
About how even Cinderella got away.
About how you were switched at birth. A bit hard on your parents, perhaps.
About becoming a designer and making more stylish clothes.
About becoming so wealthy that you could have servants.
With action-based choices, this is more or less the equivalent of the “You don’t want to do that” type of parser message from a traditional IF game. Here, however, it conveyed a slightly different message: “You don’t want to THINK that.” Thus, even as the available choices let us know how we’re shaping the PC, the game also shows us how we cannot shape her, but might be able to in a different narrative context, say if annoyance with her parents has pushed her limits.
Of course, to an extent it’s true that the choices in any style of IF game shape the character, but what’s different about Bee is that the voice of that shaping is the same as the voice of its response. It’s similar to the trade-off that happens between menu-based conversations and ASK/TELL style: the former restricts player choice, but gives greater characterization in exchange. Sometimes this trade-off is well worth it, especially in games where the prose is its own reward.
That’s certainly the case with Bee. Most every passage of the game is a pleasure to read, and a few are nothing short of sublime and beautiful. As usual for Short, she accomplishes a great deal with subtlety, understatement, and concision. Her trademark sentence fragments are sparser here than in her parser-based games (probably due to the lack of room descriptions), but used to good effect where they appear. Where she outdoes herself is in characterization. The prose feels deeply inhabited by the main character’s point of view, in a way that is clear-eyed enough to let us understand some of the things she does not, but also authentic enough that it generates sympathy not only for her situation but for those around her who create that situation. In an admirable effect, characters who start out as caricatures reveal more depth and complexity as the PC gets to know them better, just like in real life.
I could go on and on about how much I loved the writing in this game, and how I found it not just remarkably accomplished but sometimes quite moving. Instead, I’ll just nominate three more favorites, to stand for entire categories:
1) Bits of poetic diction: “You imagine what it would be like to stand in the middle of a haboob, your skin scoured by grains of sand, eyes stinging, barely able to breathe; and then, if you lived through it, dust in every crevice. If you were not killed, you would be completely sanded down, polished, perfected.”
2) Well-chosen details: Describing the documentary about North Korea to Jerome, we get a clear echo of the PC’s own dilemma: “But it wasn’t girly at all. It was like everyone being in an army. All the time.”
3) Satisfying emotional development: I followed many branches of the story, and greatly enjoyed the range of possibilities it allowed, providing a greater holistic view of “the truth” in that particular fictional world. However, I still think my favorite moment is when the PC runs away from home to find Sara. She’s confronted with things that are beyond her ken (but not ours), and must face the reality of her situation, but is comforted in a poignant, crystalline moment:
“So what am I supposed to do now?” you ask.
“Get ready,” she says. “The way I used to think of it was, I was in a chrysalis. I read things and I watched movies and looked things up on the internet, and I learned things that made me ready to break out as soon as I had wings.”
“Caterpillars are almost completely dissolved in the chrysalis,” you say. “The liquids break down their bodies into a nutritional soup. The butterfly is pretty much a different animal.”
“Yeah,” she says. “That sounds right.”
Understated, heartfelt, brilliant, and utterly beautiful, not to mention a wonderful culmination of a very long buildup. Yeah, that sounds right.