(Okay, the review below morphed into a sprawling essay [or most of one]. Here’s a mini-review: this is a personal “day in the life” type story written in Twine, about a protagonist with a speech impediment. You’ll encounter and have to navigate several social situations as well as several flashbacks from when they were younger. I found it effective and thoughtful. It does uses timed text, which some people might find annoying)
One of the cool things about Twine is how it emerged to become a broadly accessible tool for people to tell and share their personal stories with each other. see: Twine Revolution. I did say accessible there, by which I mean, for one thing: free. But also the barrier to entry to learn how to use it isn’t too high: you don’t need a deep understanding of coding, and you don’t need to know how to draw (that’s one of the strengths of lots of IF). It made it much easier to work on something that was solely your own. And as it became more popular and well known, it emerged as an easily understood format for a certain subset of people online, one that could also easily be shared: no downloading, no messy interpreters, no fuss.
Dysfluent is about communication and understanding. It’s a story about what it’s like to live in a world where people presume a certain baseline of verbal communication exists, and what happens when someone comes along that doesn’t fully meet that expectation. Someone like you. At the start, you have a checklist of the things you’re doing for the day, and this checklist is displayed prominently in a sidebar throughout (e.g. Meet friends). Tasks are crossed off as you go proceed through the day. Prominently at the end of that list is a job interview, which is also brought up, a couple times during the day. It builds a mounting tension, because all the smaller social interactions throughout the day (talking on the phone, with your friends, to a bus driver…) are teeing up this big interaction that is much trickier, with much higher stakes (a face to face interview with a potential job on the line). Job interviews are anxiety-inducing enough without having to worry about a stutter!
One design choice this makes is to colour code the conversation choices with green, yellow and red. Harder choices (trying to explain yourself, trying to make a joke) are red, while “easier” ones are green (just letting things slide, staying silent). I did wonder about colour-blind players, but there’s a setting for that in options (do the replacement colours communicate the same thing as green/yellow/red which most of us already have strong associations with?). But one big thing this asks is what you’re giving up by picking those “easier” options. You’re communicating less. Are you staying true to yourself? I picked some easier options. I let things slide. Sometimes I did stand up for myself. Where’s the line?
Playing this reminded me of a This American Life podcast episode about stuttering. It’s act one: Time Bandits of episode 713, Made to Be Broken. Powerful story. The story can be found here: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/713/made-to-be-broken/act-one-11, and you could also listen to it or read the transcript there, but to summarize: the host explains that they were attending an on-stage poetry conference. There’s a speaker that starts talking (JJJJJerome Ellis). Halfway through their first sentence, they abruptly stop. The silence stretches on. The speaker starts making small, barely perceivable clicking noises. A few more stray words come out, with more long pauses. Then a flurry of Spanish. Then back to some more English, and gradually, they get through their talk. And what they have to say is that in Brazil, phone companies give a 50% discount to customers with speech impediments. They first read about it in a book where the author mocked the law. But what’s the intent behind it? When that speaker was first invited to speak at the conference, they were off-handedly told that there was going to be an allotted 2 minute time limit for their talk. They understand why the time limit is there: it’s to make things fair, to make an even hierarchy so every speaker gets the same time. But there’s another hierarchy introduced; for those for which timely communication is a factor, like people with speech impediments, they’ll have more trouble communicating in that same time. The silences during the talk were a bit confusing, a bit uncomfortable, but also engrossing, as time seemed to slowed down. In the end, their speech ended up being five minutes, three over the initial allotment. The host directly interviews that speaker after telling us that story, and the speaker says that though being on stage sounds like it might exacerbate the stutter, it can actually help, because on the stage… the speaker has the floor. They have the time. “The stage-audience relationship is a more temporally accessible environment than other environments of verbal-- verbal-- verbal-- verbal communication that I engage with,” they say (That was taken from the podcast transcript). In day-to-day life, people aren’t as willing to wait, and people don’t know, right? Like in some of the parts in Dysfluent, other people will get impatient with you. It’s interesting to compare the differences between audio story and text game, both trying to communicate about the same topic. Just like the poetry stage, Twine is its own environment, with its own sets of relationships and its own hierarchies. As is IFComp as well. The podcast makes you listen to the pauses; the experience feels intimate, as you wait with bated breath for the next words. But it’s a speech, within a radio story, and you know words will come. Eventually. That can’t quite be replicated in a text game… because it’s a game. The game isn’t real; it’s a series of design decisions, one that the designer, in this case, has power over. Dysfluent uses pauses in text to mimic the experience of stuttering. I know reviewers in the past sometimes have expressed venomous hatred for timed text, maybe more than I have (although I’ve definitely complained about it before as well). It can certainly be a valid complaint; a lot of times, games use timed text without an evident purpose. The IF author wants to control the pacing, maybe that’s the general thing, and that’s part of the push/pull between player and author. I do think it’s generally used well here in Dysfluent. But do people have the same patience for a design choice meant to evoke empathy, as opposed to a person trying to be heard?
I had an idea for an intfiction post that I never wrote, asking people what they thought about empathy mechanics. Maybe there’s an actual term for it, but I was trying to refer to games that intentionally try to have mechanics that frustrate or bore or confuse the player in certain sections, to mirror what the character is going through. Maybe it’s repetition of a menial task, maybe it’s shifting and confusing environments and descriptions, maybe it’s timed text that makes you wait. Because lots of games try to give the player “fun,” and sometimes they might even try for “sad” (but that sadness comes from the narrative, not from a mechanic). How else can games make you feel? We’ve sometimes seen experiments with all this in IF and other games. Are they successful? Are they worth it? (I’d get into examples, but I think I’m already going too far off-track). And: how much are players able to buy into the empathy part, versus how often are brought out of the game by it? For Dysfluent, I think the timed text effectively communicates the frustration that the character is facing. But more broadly, where’s the line between understanding what the mechanic wants to communicate, and how much does the player need to continue to experience it after they’ve gotten the point? The vital thing in this game is the introduction, I think, which very effectively communicates using timed text the experience of having a speech impediment. I don’t really know if any of the timed text after that necessarily communicated anything more about stuttering; is it still needed then? The timed text could have its other uses, still. Continuing to use it communicates to the player how it’s a constant issue, but one that could crop up at certain times. And it’d be odd for me to say that the author could remove it just because it inconveniences the player, as if that’s something people could do in real life.
The one part that didn’t make sense for the timed text was perhaps when I’m waiting for other people to speak (if you want time to almost stand still, it makes more sense for a doubting inner monologue to creep in instead). Though really, I think it was mostly the video game store part of the story where this was something I noticed. As you proceed through the rest of the tasks on your to-do list for the day, there are moments that explore and effectively communicate other aspects of stuttering (different methods of avoidance, balancing of social and emotional capital, old experiences like watching a movie with friends, or being interrupted or ignored…), especially the flashbacks to earlier moments in your childhood which were especially impactful.
The actual job interview at the end did feel… too summarized. It actually went by too quickly, and you don’t actually choose what to say exactly or really get a feel for how the conversation goes. You’re making more broad decisions about whether to try to commit to a full answer or try to give a shorter one in deference to your stutter. Stuff like this:
> You decide to disclose your condition before he starts asking his questions.
His reaction is polite but difficult to read, and you hope you made the right choice.
Here is a part where I really do think the story could stretch things out; not necessarily in terms of more timed text, but just in terms of making the conversation feel important by focusing more on it, and actually having to choose my words or feel the moments as time slows to a crawl. The interview felt like it actually went by quicker than some of the earlier scenes, which doesn’t quite feel correct in terms of narrative weight.
But overall, I think it does a really nice job communicating across a bunch of small social moments, and seeing how they add up. I quite liked it!