I don’t have a review ready for this one yet but just wanted to ask which system it was written in. Looks absolutely wonderful. Is it Inkle maybe?
Thank you! It’s custom though I used it for my entry last year as well:
OK, thanks for the info! I didn’t hear much about Windrift before, looks like a system worth getting to know better.
I really liked this entry. (Really the quality of entries I’ve played through this year so far has been incredible!) The presentation here is really beautiful. Links within the text expand out to reveal notes in the margins of the page. There are news-clippings and sketches and maps that are formatted beautifully and flow within the text of the story. Reading this work feels like unfolding a palimpsest, with a new surprise in every fold. It is really well done, and conveys a real sense of atmosphere and discovery. I’m a fan of how Undum (and Raconteur) format text and I feel like this custom interface takes that even a step further.
Meticulous research, solid writing, interesting characters, beautiful textual presentation, what’s not to like? Thanks!
This is a very polished entry which looks great from the start and makes you want to dive in to the story. And thankfully, the story is engaging, with an exciting setting and characters. The protagonist is a substitute teacher called in to a small college because a professor has disappeared suddenly, and soon enough she becomes involved in the search for this professor. The narration is divided into chapters, and besides the normal text there are illustrations, newspaper clippings, book excerpts, etc. You proceed by clicking on hyperlinks, and often these hyperlinks reveal footnotes made by the narrator. The footnotes are often witty or sarcastic in tone and provide further background about the narrator or other subjects. At other times, the hyperlinks mostly bring the story forward and reveal new passages - there are not that many choices the player can actually make during the story. Making a choice which actually branches the narrative happens a few times only, and ordinarily I might have an issue with that, but here it doesn’t matter. The interface is so genially implemented that you don’t pay too much attention to that, and often you just want to see what happens next, and how. The hyperlinks are also used for various stylistic effects, for example to show how the protagonist is thinking about various things to say. The plot builds up to a great finale, with some surprises thrown in of course.
As is obvious from the above, there’s not much blame I can direct at this entry. There were a couple of minor (technical) issues only:
When removing the cardboard boxes from the tunnel entrance, there were a couple of hyperlinks that produced footnotes that overlapped each other in the margin. Also, towards the end there was a footnote where the words “some many” appeared in a row, but as I am not a native speaker I’m not sure if that was actually ok in the context.
It was an enjoyable story that very well deserves a
The links-as-marginalia thing was really an enormously convenient and pleasant way to interact with the story. Normally, if I see a page full of links that are not obviously choices, I get antsy and sometimes annoyed. The best case scenario is that I’ve just gone down a narrative cul-de-sac, taking me out of the main thread and necessitating another click to get back. The marginalia method kept these asides in-band, as it were. Once or twice in Harmonia I clicked a choice I didn’t realize I was making, but overall the experience was just so effortless and satisfying.
And of course the writing, production values, and story were all excellent. I wouldn’t have said no to a little more choice, but overall this was very strong.
Harmonia is a choice-style game about a woman who takes a job at a small liberal-arts college in New England as a substitute for a literature professor who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. As she settles in to her new job and navigates her decidedly frosty relationship with her dean, teaching assistant, and fellow faculty, she begins to uncover the history of the college and discovers that it was founded on the site of a late 19th-century Utopian commune, and that there may be more going on behind both the disappearance of her predecessor and the freak fire that caused the commune to disband over a century ago.
Harmonia styles itself as an “interactive utopian tale,” which the game defines shortly into the first chapter as “thin narrative window-dressing over socialist tracts—heavy on detail about food production, civic engagement, and gender politics, but low on storytelling and characterization.” This somewhat self-deprecating description is not really accurate: the player character Abby, at the very least, is fully fleshed out and has a strong narrative voice; the commentary in the game on civic engagement and gender politics is mild and muted (more under “clarity” below), and the storytelling is the strongest aspect of the work.
The main contribution the game makes to the field is not in the story or themes (as I discuss below in more detail, the story is meticulously researched, exceptionally polished, and competently crafted, but unambitious) but in the polish of the presentation and graphics: the game is cast as a journal being written by the protagonist, and clicking on various hyperlinked bits of text will reveal some commentary scribbled in the margins—it seems the author custom-wrote the software used to visualize these notes. It is a highly-effective technique for adding more color to the narrative and more depth to the narrator character. Fonts are layout are chosen judiciously and used to great effect throughout the story. The text itself is beautiful, and while I hesitate to praise style too highly out of fear some authors may misinterpret my criticism as suggesting content is less important, I cannot deny that the care and attention shown in this work left a very favorable first impression, and I hope other authors take away a few lessons in how to present their work in the best possible light. And I cannot say enough positive things about the line sketching that accompany the work, though it’s not clear how influential this innovation will be in the future, since I imagine few authors share the artistic talent of Daly.
The quality of the writing is very high and it is clear that great care went into polishing the exposition. At a higher level, though, several aspects of the story could be improved:
- The depiction of the academic environment, and of the dean in particular, I thought rang somewhat hollow. There is a subtle and quite interesting relationship in academia between the rank and file faculty and the upper administration, and it would have been interesting to see that relationship explored: the dean has a lot less explicit power (over the tenured factulty, at least) than is suggested in this story, and is at worst a malevolent background force, meddling in office space allocation, faculty hiring, the size of the instructional budget and how it is allocated, and, yes, annual decisions about promotion and contract renewal. But the dean wouldn’t concern themselves with the day-to-day activities of professors, including whether teaching assistants were doing their jobs, whether faculty are missing a few days of class, or poking around in dusty tunnels without permission, etc—and would have very few tools for disciplining faculty in the short-term even if they did.
The threat to fire a professor “tenure be damned” is especially clumsy; it’s toothless bluster that betrays a level of insecurity and guilelessness that would be fatal to an administrator in her position. A more accurately-portrayed “evil dean” would be impeccably professional and polite—big smile with lots of teeth—and would assert her will with threats that are oh-so-carefully veiled. “You should know, Ms. Fuller, that yours will probably not be a permanent position. We desperately needed somebody to step in for Professor Lynn this semester, but unfortunately, with our instructional budget in the shambles that it’s in… of course, I’ll make the strongest case I can at the end of the year, based on your record of teaching and service this semester…”
To a lesser extent, the depiction of Abby’s colleagues also rang false. It’s absolutely true that there’s a class divide between full faculty and adjunct instructors, and that this divide would be felt in day-to-day interactions such as at faculty lunches… but Abby’s academic pedigree would not factor much into it.
- Ambition of the story’s themes: as a deconstruction of utopian tales, Harmonia could have taken one of two tacks: it could have been a vicious take-down, with characters from the 1800s arriving in the present-day only to be vicims of the misogyny, harassment, and campus sexual violence that still festers on some campuses. Or it could have played straight to trope, with the characters marveling at the social progress that has taken place. I’m somewhat relieved that Harmonia went in a different direction, since if executed poorly, either of these approaches could have ended up painfully insufferable… instead, Harmonia seemingly shrugs its shoulder in a giant “meh.” The game communicates its assessment of the utopian genre using a metaphor about the background sounds of life: a visitor from the 1800s might marvel at the lack of animal noises in the present day, without noticing that they have been replaced by new noises of equal volume. Ok, that’s a perfectly fair and safe stance to take, but I might’ve hoped for the inclusion of more male characters in the present-day; a deeper comparison of gender relations in the past and present; and bolder commentarity on utopian literature and whether contemporary society has lived up to the hopes of the past.
On the other hand, I thought that the story segments depicting Abby teaching were particularly well-executed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author is or was a teacher, and was good at it.
Other minor comments:
- How much have accents evolved over the past hundred years? I found it strange that the commune members didn’t remark on Abby’s “exotic” English accent and vocabulary.
- It’s a bit strange for the characters to worry about getting fired for exploring the tunnels under the campus. When it comes to faculty mischief, poking around underground is fairly far on the innocuous end of the spectrum…
The game is meticulously researched and referenced, and quality of the references is exceptional.
First of all, I am not an expert on the late 19th century, on utopian literature, or for that matter, on literature of any kind, so I’m not sure why the associate editor asked me for a review. Nevertheless I will try to give a fair assessment:
As discussed above in detail, the game exhibits a very high level of craftsmanship, and while the narrative does not explore any particularly deep themes or take any significant risks, it is engrossing and entertaining. There are a few places where I believe Abby’s interactions with her academic peers could improve with a bit of editing and polish, as outlined above under “clarity,” but these flaws could easily be corrected with a minor revision. The reason for my somewhat tepid score is not due to any shortcomings in the quality of the writing or story, but rather, because I cannot come up with a convincing answer to the question, why interactive fiction? Why not static prose?
And this is not an idle question, since multiple times during my playthrough I caught myself thinking, “wouldn’t this have been so much more impactful and effective if it had made better use of the IF medium?” There is very little player agency: sure, there are three of four branching points where the reader’s choice matters in how the story develops (though I suspect that the story has a “diamond” structure with only the last decision truly affecting the ending), but there is no “TANGO moment” at the climax of the tale; no giddy excitement as I (the player! not the character) turn the campus upside-down looking for journal entries tucked away in hidden places and slowly piece together the story of the college’s founding… no panic or urgency as I’m trapped in an underground cavern and struggling to escape… in short, my emotional connection with Abby and engagement to the story felt so much more muted that they might have been had the game made better use of interactive elements. And in one of the most frustrating moments of my playthrough, I didn’t have the option to stab a character in the face who very much deserved a stabbing—a criminal theft of agency in this genre.
Speaking of that critical end-game decision, I felt it was less momentous and effective that it might have been. When weighing the two options in my mind, I found I barely knew anything about Lynn, or about the consequences of my choice… the stakes were too low. I was largely ambivalent about my choice when, from the way the choice was framed by the game, I’m sure ambivalence was not intended.
Stepping back, perhaps I’m being unfair—the lack of agency wouldn’t have been so frustrating to me if the quality of the game and story weren’t so high in the first place. I think there is a lot of room for analysis, discussion, and criticism when viewing this work as a member of the essential IF canon—but this review is about the suitability of the game for publication at IFComp, and in that context, this game is clearly above the bar. I am strongly in favor of accepting the game for publication. On a hypothetical alternative rating scale that goes from 1 to 10, I would rate it a 8.
Minor spoilers ahead; later, major spoilers but I’ll give another warning.
I don’t remember an IFComp entry with so few choices that worked so well as Harmonia. It’s a huge success. I like a good story, which is present here, but a few other things really won me over: creative interactivity, beautiful presentation, and powerful-feeling choices. I also appreciated the compactness of this deep story; it fits comfortably inside of two hours and feels quite complete and substantial.
There are only about half a dozen actual choices you can make, but they tend to ramp up in importance, culminating in a classic “him or me” that will make you plan to replay the game to see what happens in the other branch even before you make your choice. This is the only choice that affects the outcome of the story, but since it doesn’t otherwise branch, any further accommodation of minor endings would probably make a cohesive story too difficult to maintain. At least one other choice felt weighty at the time, but they’re mostly there to give a different perspective for a short time. The first one was not even obviously a choice, which got me thinking about the merits of not allowing the player to correct a click-error when such a thing could have been provided in this format. Here, your only recourse is to restart, which is okay, I guess; I needed to play a few times (and then zip through several more) anyway to understand the plot as best I could.
The majority of clickables led to the animated appearance of a scribbled line pointing to brief notes in the margins, but the game had a smattering of other creative uses for the “links”. One highlight took the form of interrupted dialog, where some words one character was saying would be replaced by quoted text from another. This wasn’t a game where the player was intended to role-play the protagonist; instead, the overall interactivity felt something like lying on a memory-foam mattress. The clicks let you proceed at your own pace, ask for more info when you felt like it, and peek under a few hidden places. I thought it was an excellent way to experience a short story, and it looked nice on my widescreen desktop monitor—but I didn’t try the phone.
At first I thought the scribbles might be a graphical error. The lines are pixelated and don’t have the look of proper anti-aliasing (this was in Chrome). I tried MS Edge, and the scribbles didn’t appear at all in that browser. After going back to Chrome for further evidence, I eventually figured the scribbles were intended.
The scribbles (usually) lead to margin-notes that are thematic of both the interface and the story. The work is presented as a journal and contains excerpts from other journals or various written works, most of which have some handwritten annotation by someone. Of course, it’s painful for any author to resort to journal entries to illuminate the bulk of the plot, because it always strains credibility that most characters would bother to write these things down. This author, Liza Daly, seems to handle this by re-imagining the world as a place where everyone writes down their thoughts all the time, whether on their own paper or on whatever they’re reading at the time. (However, this may be Abby Fuller’s re-imagining.) So be it!
The marginalia contained the most convincing tidbits of the writing in Harmonia. The style is more fluid, and I attribute this to an older, wiser, and more carefree Abby Fuller commenting on her own work. The younger Abby, responsible for most of the text, is meticulous and plodding; she’s not a particularly compelling narrator, but at least to some degree that may have been intended. The dialog made serious concessions to exposition and was sometimes difficult to imagine anyone saying out loud, but again this could have been an intended part of the journal experience. At any rate, some concessions had to be made in the name of brevity.
Major spoilers ahead now as I turn to the plot of this thing.
I admit, I wanted to sound really smart about the plot in this review, but I’ll be damned if I can completely sort out this multi-layered, fascinating mess of a story. However, I do have a favorite interpretation. Perhaps it’s an obvious one, but since the other reviewers so far haven’t given one (although I otherwise enjoyed the reads), I can’t be sure.
My conclusion is that, like the blurb suggests, the story is concocted—in the game-world, of course. Hoax, forgery, or just an entertaining story. Abby Fuller might be the author, or it could be the librarian, Ella Merchant, who is credited with editing the doc—and Abby doesn’t exist. It might depend on which ending you choose.
The two endings differ in who goes Back to the Future: Abby or Jeffrey. Both endings destroy access to the time machine (at least without a great deal of excavation), making the story nearly impossible to corroborate: a fine basis for some campus legend.
If Abby returns, she’s probably the author: everything comes through her. Alice Gilman disappears (she never existed) after delivering the letter from the past, and the only evidence of the letter’s existence is via Abby’s writings. Jeffrey is still missing, but no one else actually saw the time machine, since Ella and Lillian were sent home before the final investigation. Some of the reported events may be true, but Abby was inspired by other Utopian works to write her own story involving a 100-years-forward travel. Blithedale’s (true) history as Harmonia was also an inspiration. If this interpretation is correct, there’s a great deal more to say about what Abby was saying with her story, concerning Harmonia, the Utopian ideals, and feminism. But I don’t want to get too far afield in speculation.
If Jeffrey returns, it seems more likely that Merchant is the author (everything comes through her as the “finder” of the journal) and there never was an Abby. But in that case was there a Lillian or a Jeffrey? I found this ending harder to deal with in any interpretation.
In general, I think my “concocted” theory is additionally supported by the game’s numerous references to things like creating one’s own world and rewriting one’s own future. And, of course, technical difficulties tend to go away if it’s a story and not reported fact. On the other hand, I noted that the blurb is not an essential part of the work—it may have been an afterthought rather than a clue—and in some ways the whole thing is convincing (or at least cleverly meant to be ambiguous) as a true story. Just admitting there are weaknesses.
Ultimately, I felt the alternative was too far-fetched. I could ramble for a couple of pages about the difficulties with these events being real to Abby—even before getting into a discussion about the Temporal Prime Directive. Here, I’ll just mention one thing that may be of interest to the author because I felt it was the primary shortcoming of the narrative regardless of interpretation.
What’s really missing is a solid connection between the Cadwells’ development of time travel and either the Astrolith or Utopian literature. Yeah, science has been tossed out the window, but a connection to either—or both—would have been quite powerful. As it stands, their technology rests—at best—upon a vague reference to “galvanic experiments”, and that’s not enough. There’s a literary connection to Utopian ideas, in the sense of moving forward 100 years, but here’s a call to dream up a causal relationship that would have really put a fire under things. And the Astrolith is an even bigger opportunity missed. The Cadwells’ experiment was eventually “moved underground”, meaning it really had no relationship to the rock, even though later the rock seemed an integral part? If so, what? This is screaming for a connection that’s not given. This somehow should be why the Cadwells thought time-travel could be possible in the first place. A little research wouldn’t have hurt, either. A meteorite that large would have been vaporized in the energy of its own impact. Natural caverns in the vicinity would have been destroyed. But, impacts of that magnitude can create some interesting materials underground—that could have been the source of the magic.
For future players: you can use the browser Back button to undo a choice (or as many choices as you want, all the way back to the beginning). Full forward/backward browser history is supported, like a normal website. This is built in to the underlying Windrift framework.
Thank you for the thoughtful review!
Not to tell tales (literally) out of school, but from my experience I get the sense that Abby’s academic pedigree could easily factor into the class divide with the full faculty.
That’s great! Sorry I missed it!
Fair enough. My experience has been that pedigree is extremely important when on the job market, and largely irrelevant (at least internally; funding agencies etc will still care to some extent) once you start your appointment, but my experience may not translate to small liberal-arts colleges.
I’ve never taught at a small liberal-arts college, and I’m not going so much by firsthand department, but with adjuncts/visiting temp faculty I got the idea that there was a distinction between “Person who went to a top school like us and is someone who might have a job like ours in a couple years” and “Temporary adjunct possibly with less pedigree who we would never think of hiring to our job and who we will treat as basically someone who’s just here to handle a couple of courses rather than a full faculty member.” Mostly I experienced the positive side of this–I had some visiting appointments where I was treated very collegially and even invited to faculty meetings (which is a mixed blessing), and I know that experience isn’t universal.
I really love this game, but I have a question about a certain part of it:
[spoiler]I chose the ‘talking my way in there’ option to get into Professor Lynn’s office. When I later had to get into his house, the ‘page’ ended with the following text:
And out of the blue, I called a guy named Walter, who happened to have the keys to Lynn’s house! As the story hadn’t mentioned anyone named Walter earlier, I was quite surprised by this. So my question is: Who was this Walter guy, how did I know him, and why did he have the keys to Lynn’s home? Was this a very strange case of deus ex machina in an otherwise excellent game or (more probably) just a bug? I guess there is some text missing from the story.[/spoiler]
Oh thank you! That’s a bug (or rather, an oversight)—that passage should have a conditional based on an earlier choice. Someone else mentioned what I assume was this problem but didn’t provide the specifics, so I wasn’t sure where it was. My apologies.
Reviewed by yours truly here.
Standard disclaimer: Warning! May contain trace amounts of artistic license. Please play the game before reading my review of it. Not only will there be spoilers, but my ramblings are a bit on the experimental side this year, and I fear that they could be obscure to the point of misrepresentation if read out of context.