Beythilda the Night Witch

Poetry is a hard, hard discipline, one that places an incredible number of demands on a relatively small volume of writing. Everything about every word counts, and small flaws are magnified; you have to be very, very good at poetry before you stop being bad at it. And poetry is a uniquely vulnerable form, blending the emotional directness of music without the cover of abstraction. (If a pianist slips up, their mistake looks like a mistake, nothing more. It doesn’t look as though they’re saying something that they didn’t mean.)

Conveying information to the player in an IF game is also a hard task for a writer. A lot of different functions have to be packed into a small space: the impression of a physical space needs to be generated and sustained, the significant particulars of that space have to be defined in a clear and memorable manner, likely modes of interaction need to be suggested but not shouted, the personality and immediate motivations of the protagonist should be conveyed, and every other demand normally imposed by good writing still needs to be satisfied.

And when IF and poetry are combined, things get more constrictive than either medium. Narrative poetry, for instance, can often afford to be long-winded; the poet has the freedom to leave the narrative aside to pursue some extended simile or draw a moral about a broader point, or otherwise spend a good pile of verses focused in on something of more importance to thematics than to the plot. There is not much room to do this in IF.

So choosing to write IF as poetry is a tremendously brave decision, particularly in a format where very little time is available for reworking. And it’s non-trivial that Beythilda is so functional at delivering core IF needs: I was never confused about the general situation of the character, the progression of the story or plausible things that I should be trying. I had a strong enough sense of my surroundings to feel grounded in a world.

J’dal

It’s pretty common, in heroic fantasy, to drop into a style of writing in which nobody behaves like actual human beings rather than third-hand genre conventions. J’dal does an awesome job of avoiding that. Its lead feels like a grouchy teenager, not an RPG cliche of one. I was won over at about this point:

I make a stupid sandwich with a whole apple between two slices of bread, and start eating.

Stupid sandwich! This is the perfect teenage petulant-irony response to a shitty situation that you’re powerless to fix.

It depicts inter-group tensions in a generally authentic-feeling manner, and at its heart there is this adoptive father-daugher relationship that’s complex and awkward and not all hugs and rainbows, but also involves genuine warmth on both sides. J’dal’s father sort of understands the racism she faces, but also sort of doesn’t get it; he’s often painfully oblivious in hurtful ways, he doesn’t really appreciate the sexism side of her isolation, and there’s some ambiguity about the extent to which he’s exploiting her for her race-dependent infravision.  But they do actually care about each other, although they’re both inarticulate about it. But this doesn’t actually make everything all right. If every relationship in heroic fantasy was this well-observed, I’d hold the genre in no small esteem.