The Pinecone, by Joseph Pentangelo
Hey, it’s another game about waiting for the bus! As I made clear in my What the Bus? review, I am here for this kind of content. While both games are more about the journey than the destination, the Pinecone isn’t an absurdist descent into a transit nightmare, but a short, surrealist vignette (it’s sufficiently short and surrealist that I don’t want to go into details – you’re waiting for a bus, and as the cover indicates there’s a pinecone and at least one goat who enter into the proceedings). The author notes that this was adapted from a piece of static flash-fiction, and that’s the source of the game’s greatest strength, as well perhaps of its limitations.
The strength is the writing, which isn’t just “good for IF,” but flat-out good. I don’t mean to undercut how hard it is to write well for IF – it’s just that when you’re doing a parser game you usually need to do things like describe very precise spatial relationships while keeping the amount of text under control so the player is able to pick out the key details. There’s usually more freedom in choice-based IF, but there’s similarly lots of weight on the text, say if the author is trying to provide enough information to help the player feel like they’re making decisions based on a full understanding on the situation and characterization of the protagonist and other folks in a scene. The Pinecone, though, barrels past those constraints and offers prose that wouldn’t be out of place in something by an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum. Here’s how the eponymous seedcase is described:
There’s a good amount of detail provided, but they’re all well chosen to set a mood, and show off the author’s gift for memorable images and clever turns of phrase. And the presentation – clean white background, with an attractive font – adds an additional note of class.
The flip side of this is that I don’t think the game is trying very hard to be game-like. I felt a bit lost as I hit most of the choice points, as I didn’t feel like I had much context or even access to the information that the main character should have (there’s clearly some family lore about goats that’s only stated after you make a choice that relies on that knowledge). And if you’re interested in things beyond the very specific items and situations the author is focused on, you’re out of luck, as there’s no real scope for exploration.
I don’t think any of that matters very much – there are distinct endings (I got three out of the four) but all of them seemed like a fitting capper for the experience, so the stakes for your decisions are generally low, and as the situation as a whole is fairly incomprehensible for the character as well as the player, a bit of confusion might be fitting. There’s some gentle humor in the writing and the absurdity of the situation, but really, the star here is the literary prose.