I had a great time replaying Hennessy’s games for this essay. Fun stuff!
B.P. Hennessy is successful Twine author by any count. His most popular game, Birdland, has the record for most XYZZY awards won, the most IFDB ratings of any game published since 2013, and took 4th in IFComp.
Brendan is one of my personal favorite comedy authors, and, in my personal experience, a swell guy. I’ve spent more time trying to model my writing after his than any other author. One piece of advice of his that’s stuck with me is (paraphrased) “If you make your writing weird or absurd enough, no one will know if it’s good or bad.”
According to his twitter bio, Brendan is currently employed at Ubisoft as a narrative designer, but I’m not sure which games he’s produced there.
You Will Select a Decision (2013)
Hennessy released four games in 2013, right when Porpentine was in her height of involvement with IFComp and her first big Twine games. Of those games, You Will Select a Decision is my personal favorite.
It’s framed as a poor translation of two Kyrgyz CYOA games, one about a child in the woods, and the other about a cowboy town in the US. The draw here is that the bad ‘translation’ uses complicated, intelligent text for stupid things. For instance, you can encounter the following folk song:
A cat was strolling along,
With a half of a dozen of mice
And every single mouse was confident
And every single mouse expected to get cheese
(for they were told)
(and flattered about the excellence of their abilities)
But every 60 metres
the cat’s paw would swoop down
And collecte an overconfident mouse
Until at last after 300 metres
There was only one mouse
And it wasn’t so confident anymore
If only it had listened to its aunts or uncles
The structure is wildly branching, but easy to navigate. There’s not a strong, overarching narrative, but it’s hilarious.
Bell Park, Youth Detective (2013)
This game, released in the 2013 IFComp, has complementary strengths when compared to You Will Select a Decision. It has a much stronger narrative, but less of the absurd language. It features more conversation, but less choices.
You are a teenager, paid to solve a murder. In a conscious mockery of books like The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, the inappropriateness of a teen solving crimes is immediately and repeatedly pointed out. As in many Hennessy games, adults are ineffective or negligent, and the player’s will is frequently thwarted, but in amusing ways.
This game laid the foundation for an entire series of games, the “Hennessy Cinematic Universe”, so to speak.
This is one of the landmark games in all of IF, and especially this decade. Only Howling Dogs can compare to it among Twine games in terms of popularity and influence.
This games combines the best of the two previously mentioned games. Bell Park, the youth detective, returns as an NPC in this sprawling, story-focused game. By night, the teenage player dreams of bizarre birds with curiously stilted language, similar to “You Will Select a Decision”. These birds ask piercing questions which affect the player’s stats. By day, these stats help the player navigate the awkward teenage world of summer camp.
The game is very large, taking place over 9 or so days. It is gorgeously produced, with thoughtful use of color and well-done portraits.
It also has its finger on the pulse of teenage angst and feeling. It’s exploration of uncertain self-esteem and gay romance earned it a following on Tumblr, where some screenshots earned thousands of notes and plenty of fanart, a rare occurrence for an IFComp game.
Speaking of IFComp, it took 4th that year, to that point the highest placement for a Twine game. It cleaned house in the XYZZY’s, though, earning 6 awards (including Best Game) in a year full of great games. It also spawned a small sequel (Open Up), and provided the setting for the game Known Unknowns.
Known Unknowns (2016)
This game is remarkable, and I didn’t really notice it until after several replays.
It’s an episodic game with the same visual style as Birdland. You play as a young teenaged journalist trying to live up to the legacy of the founder of the school newspaper.
Playing of the most popular parts of Birdland, Hennessy has filled this game with teen drama. Romances, parties, boring or harsh teachers, breakups, hookups, this is perhaps the dominant theme in the game. Characters, especially teachers, have hilariously exaggerated personality traits.
The main story thread, though, is that of a ghostly raccoon who communicates with the player using emojis only, a conceit that Hennessy had long discussed in conversations with other authors.
The epic scope of this game, together with its multiple threads, make it another classic, albeit one less recognized than Birdland.
Hennessy released two other games in 2013, the better of which is King of Bees in Fantasyland, and the other is a short game called The Thing about Dungeons. Both explore the consequences of video game actions in a realistic world, specifically the tendency of players to destroy everything and kill everyone.
As mentioned before, Hennessy loves to mix the intelligent and the stupid. Brilliant people or creatures who are socially inept contrast with fools (often adults) attempting to appear intelligent.
His games are focused on character interactions, with about half of these games being purely dialog (with a few ‘stage directions’). The visual aspect is dealt with with care, even up to the credits and the cover art.
Finally, most of these games are focused on youth, especially that part of youth when kids need adult guidance and begin to realize that not everyone is qualified to give it.
None of this came by accident. Hennessy works hard on these games. On Birdland, he said:
[W]hen Birdland came around I read like a truckload of LGBT YA books. Probably over a hundred books in the span of a few months. Generally the focus was on lesbian books specifically — I think I more or less exhausted that entire subgenre — but I tried to get examples from across the spectrum. Reading those books, thinking about how I would have reacted to them as a kid, figuring out what distinguished the books I enjoyed from the books I didn’t, all that work really helped me shape the story.
(I recommend this entire interview as examples of ways to think about storytelling and writing:
B. P. Hennessy’s peculiar brand of quirky, heart-felt humor has made a lasting mark on the IF world.Perhaps work obligations have prevented a continuation of his former output, but his collected works are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I highly recommend everyone check them out!