Review – Harmonia

Harmonia blew me away. Those with aversions to gushing reviews should avert their eyes or risk injury. Story and presentation are exquisitely united in this work. I can only imagine that back in the mid-20th Century at some think tank like RAND Corporation or XEROX PARC, where lab-coated balding men with horn-rimmed glasses were trying to imagine what “cybernetic stories” would be in the 21st Century, they might have hoped for something like this: a technologically enhanced story. Nothing so crude as hypertext, and certainly not a game, Harmonia seems like the furthest point we have reached in transforming flat text into a technologically-mediated experience.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

From the top: I should preface this by noting that last year, I got very busy around the time of IFcomp, but stuck to my randomized list order and never got to Stone Harbor. I did sneak a peek at it, but shelved it with the intention of going back. Of course, I forgot to do that, so I wasn’t prepared for what was in store — this story hit me full force in terms of writing and presentation.

My initial impression was favorable: I thought the cover art was probably a 19th Century lithograph of an inn, and I enjoyed the format of the blurb as a card catalog entry. I assumed correctly that this hinted at some sort of academic approach in this story, and also got the time period about right.

When I talk about first impressions – gods, did this story do it right. But what made the layout so aesthetically appealing? Fonts and spacing. I’m not a web-designer and usually don’t give fonts any thought beyond roman, italic, and bold, but they are very much a part of the secret sauce of this presentation: Cinzel Decorative and EB Garamond, to be specific. Cinzel is elegant, and it catches the eye because it is a little more fancy that we are used to in our age of blocky san serif efficiency. Garamond on the other hand is more working class, but is still not a default browser font.

The initial screen is not crowded and the eye is drawn first to the huge title and the central quote, but the player then notices the ABOUT and RESTART options. Before diving into the story, I clicked ABOUT out of curiosity. There isn’t all that much under that link, but the author does solicit feedback. I am surprised how few submissions have done that. On one hand, an author may think what’s the point? My work will be judged by what I submitted on September 30th, but that’s not entirely true. Works can be updated during the competition, and major improvements can be introduced. More and more people are playing the online versions of the game rather than grabbing the bundle on day one of the competition.

Beyond that, IFcomp is not the end of a work’s life time. Often there is a final rush before IFcomp, and authors have to triage their TODO list. Sometimes late fixes to one part of a work unintentionally capsize programming or create narrative inconsistencies in another part of the work, and these issues only come to light as players pound on them during the competition.

Works will eventually be indexed on IFDb, and deposited on the IFarchive and other sites. Players will continue to find these works in future years, through sites like IFwiki and review sites or by word of mouth. Interestingly, in the “extended mission” phase of IFcomp entries, critical appreciation may drift. There is a lot of time pressure to play and grade games during IFcomp, and in the years that follow, the same works may be played at a more leisurely pace, and subtleties may come through. To condense this rant to four words: feedback is always good.

It took all of about a minute beyond clicking “BEGIN” for me to hop out of the story and go on a side quest. The typography, the beautiful line drawings, and the dynamic extension of text were all the sorts of things I had seen before, but the marginal footnote — what? how? I’d never seen anything like that, but realized that it is exactly what I’ve always wanted in hypertext – a way to drill down on links without losing the main train of the story, and without having to worry about how to navigate back to it.

I’m easily distracted, and the next thought was — what technology is this? Undum? Some very modified version of twine? Other? The answer is other: Windrift. Since I wasn’t familiar with Stone Harbor, this was my first exposure, and I spent the next three quarters of an hour over on github looking at the framework itself mostly reading through the README, but also perusing some of the code in the story template. The code for Harmonia itself isn’t up there yet, but will be after IFcomp, and I’ll circle back for that.

Was it a good idea to pull out of the story to go look at the technology behind it? Maybe not, but I hadn’t gone more than a couple paragraphs into the story, and when I came back, I started the story over again. I think it was a useful side trip, because I was able to appreciate the philosophy behind the framework, and recognized various features as they are implemented in the game.

I also came away a little stunned about the prospect of writing a story in this system. From what I know of the author, she has a background in web development and programming. She wrote the framework, so of course it makes sense to her, but this is pretty low level stuff. It feels very awkward to me and I think there would be a steep learning curve before I began to think in its terms. On the other hand — look what it can do. Back to the story.

As I mentioned, the first effect I noticed was notes in the margin of the story. These notes can themselves have hyperlinks and extend the story and throughout the text they can be rendered in different fonts to suggest different annotators. A subtle effect, which I thought was very impressive from a programmatic perspective, is that the notes are tied to the text by lines that look like they are drawn. Not only that, but as the page is resized, these pencil marks scale — are they some sort of vector format picture? Are they generated by some sort of spline algorithm? Very cool.

As I learned from the overview of the framework, the focus of Windrift is not on branching stories, but mutable ones, and that was very evident in this work. There are only a couple places where the player directs the flow of the narrative, although these nodes are have profound effects on the story and its outcome. Maybe there is some trade off between frequent player decisions and deep ones. But interactivity is not solely comprised of decision making. The reader is constantly poking away at the page, and the story cannot advance without the discoveries the player makes in doing so.

Coming back to typography, since it made such an impression on the first screen, I was sensitized to it throughout. This work uses a lot of typefaces to excellent effect, handwritten marginalia in various color inks, period-appropriate fonts for late 19th Century periodicals, and, heavens help us: Comic Sans in the student flyer. The fonts do get their recognition in the credits, where Waldenfont is acknowledged.

The writing is no less impressive than the technology. This story would not be out of place in a published collection; it stands on its own merit. Everything about this story screams academic setting, from the blurb to the chapter-heading quotations (from real sources, BTW), to drawings of campus, footnoted text, inclusion of primary source material, and of course the main character and setting.

The author pokes a little fun along the way at the academic pecking order, the “noble poverty” of academic life, and trials and tribulations of dealing with college administration as seen through the eyes of the lead character, Professor Abby Fuller.

The stories focus on utopias is intrinsically interesting, and the bibliography at the end of the story is witness to the research that the author undertook in writing this work. That research certainly paid off in terms of verisimilitude of the fictional setting and the authentic ring of the period documents cited and included in the flow of the story.

I’m sure others will comment more on the narrative itself, so I will leave it to them. I’ll just say that I enjoyed reading through the path I selected, and I am saving a replay for after the IFcomp period, when I’m under less time pressure.

Story: 10

Voice: 10

Play: 9. If I have to pick on one item, it would be player agency; this is mostly a linear story… except when it’s not.

Polish: 10. This story sets the high bar for this category, going far, far spell check. I should also recognize the drawings that Seamus Heffernan produced for this work; they are an important part of the look and feel of this work. The line drawings accent the text and the drawing of the machine really helped me visualize that portion of the story. My only nerdesque quibble: ventilation. The characters don’t die of carbon monoxide from either the coal or modern generator, so there must be some sort of chimney that isn’t shown.

Technical: 10

JNSQ: 1

Preliminary Score: 10.8

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