Weird Interactive Fiction

Alternatively "Games No One Can Play, But Everyone Should"


In this context, describing a gameything as "weird" does not mean it's bad. This also does not mean that I think it is bad. Some interactive fiction is just long, or inconvenient, or involves more input than the average person is willing to give.

The best games on this list use gameplay mechanics that are simply so unique, hardcore gamers and newbies alike will experience a learning curve. In the more... tricky examples, all kinds of users could find themselves headbutting the wall.

Here are some summaries of my favourite weird Interactive Fiction. They might be quirky, but they are well worth your time.



HYPNOSPACE OUTLAW (2019)


From Steam:

Hypnospace Outlaw is a '90s internet simulator in which you scour Hypnospace's wide variety of weird and wonderful websites to hunt down wrongdoers, while also keeping an eye on your inbox, avoiding viruses and adware, and downloading a plethora of apps that may or may not be useful.


A videogame wherein one must re-learn the basics of 1990's GUI (graphical user interface) to play and proceed. As unappealing as it may initially sound, experiencing Hypnospace only requires rudimentary tech-literacy to begin, and is a fantastic treat in nostalgia-surfing and puzzle-based gameplay.

The interface and the clunky, mesmeric internet world, rampantly works to trick the player into digital blunders. Downloading annoying pop-ups, clogging the downloads folder, and listening to asinine music loops are crucial to the experience of the game. Hypnospace's visuals are the cherry on top, an endless reservoir of aggressively garish, retro aesthetics, that are present in all aspects of the game.


When playing, one finds themselves clicking back and forth, neck-deep in various online communities. In this game, the player must search the forums with a fine-toothed comb, sniffing out unlawful deeds to enforce the "Hypnospace Patrol Department's" arbitrary rules. To do this, you read many, many webpages.

There is great tedium baked into the gameplay mechanics, as the player must adapt to operating a universe reminiscent of something like Netscape or Geocities. It may take some practice, but once the initial discordance is overcome, Hypnospace can be cracked like a satisfying puzzle. And once you've breached the surface, it's the characters and the game-world which then charm you to death.

The archaic interfaces aside, there is a distinctive culture of the internet that Hypnospace perfects, too. The 90's-era World Wide Web is replicated faithfully; it's kooky, it's earnest, it's embarrassing, and the forums are alive and buzzing with personalities that develop as you play. Within webpages and personal statuses one may find forum-user drama, obnoxious gifs, fanpages, hackers, broken HTML, internet lingo, and cutesy typing quirks. It's easy to see how the individual characters, having built these forums, shine through the (web)page.


Besides what it initially appears to be, Hypnospace does not rely on nostalgia and janky GUI to gratify only one specific type of player. Yes, it's a silly lampooning of the internet, but it's also just a great game. The intertwining relationships are compelling, the story is stellar, and the "puzzles" themselves are an absolute joy to complete.



PATHOLOGIC (2005)


From Steam:

On the surface, Pathologic is a first person horror adventure game where you control one of three "heroes." Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find an experience that will affect your emotional and psychological state. In the world of Pathologic you’ll find yourself in situations where morals and good deeds are meaningless in the face of raw despair and endless need. Talk to the denizens of the town and decide for yourself if you wish to ease someone else’s pain or save every bit of precious medicine to protect yourself from the invisible and inexorable plague. Become witness to the miasma of horror as the plague begins to overcome the town.


A true cult masterpiece of gaming, and definitely more an experience than entertainment. Pathologic is disturbing and unplayable. It's a longform experience of dread and alienation, through gruelling gameplay and disheartening plot. The bright side to completing it? You get to spend 24-72 hours listening to the sickest soundtrack you've ever heard.


Often described as "difficult", Pathologic toys with gaming expectations like a sick-minded bully, by moving their goalposts and weirding them out. The visuals and environments have an intense vibe, they're eerie, they're depressing, and everything is doom-laden. The dialogue is convoluted and intensely esoteric, and even walking the map feels sluggish and designed to drain the player's time.

But this is all intentional, however. In suffering these cruel and lengthy punishments, the player is kept on their toes and stuck in their head. With nothing to do but experience prolonged suffering, they can do little but think about the game. Notably, one question the game is asking you, is "Is it all worth it?"

I've written previously about Walking Simulator's tendency for slow-pacing, a clever tool in generating immersion. Pathologic uses the same slow burn here, but for evil, instead of good.


All that said, it does the job. Pathologic is a strong contender for the category of "games as art", with a staggering plot and unfathomable originality, it takes a strong-will to play it to completion. One of the few interactive experiences that openly acknowledges the relationship between Theatre and Games, Pathologic intermingles the two mediums to create a staggering fourth-wall-breaking mind-bender. And when the curtain call comes, it makes sure to look you dead in the eye.

If you're a philosophical sadist, this game may be your cup of tea. If not, instead of playing it, why not watch these videos, or play Pathologic 2.



THE RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN (2018)


From Steam:

In 1802, the merchant ship Obra Dinn set out from London for the Orient with over 200 tons of trade goods. Six months later it hadn't met its rendezvous point at the Cape of Good Hope and was declared lost at sea.

Early this morning of October 14th, 1807, the Obra Dinn drifted into port at Falmouth with damaged sails and no visible crew. As insurance investigator for the East India Company's London Office, dispatch immediately to Falmouth, find means to board the ship, and prepare an assessment of damages.


Distinct from my other weirdy puzzle-and-explorative examples, Obra Dinn is a madman's innovation in storytelling and adventure. Unlike anything typical of the mystery genre, these puzzles are entirely logical. The player is urged to focus on deduction, rewarding them with the kind of satisfying epiphanies no other game can give.


In terms of function, Obra Dinn hands the player a journal filled with crewmates names, nationalities, professions, and a few group sketches. Tasked to answer, "Who are they?" and "How did they die?" for each individual; the player must do so based on context and clues around the ship.

The ship is explored through the crew members' deaths, wherein the player walks through frozen scenes of their final moments, hunting for visual confirmation on details they can only surmise. They are given audio for the moments prior to death, and subtitles too, unfortunately for you, without names.


With these simple devices, the player is given enough to solve 60 individual cases. And that's it. In this game we never meet the skeletons we investigate, we aren't in the (absolutely bananas) events and we can't watch the salty seadogs in action. We simply revisit and reimagine, forced to piece together the crazy happenings from our own intuition. To "play" the game you must cross-reference, look closely, and think. Doing so is exceedingly satisfying.


I've not even touched on the gorgeous stripped-back visuals or sensational soundtrack. Obra Dinn cultivates rich adventure and discovery through sound, visuals, and storytelling, but most of all it makes the player feel amazing. Who knew a consistent well of "Eureka!" moments could be tapped from 1-bit environments?

It's worth mentioning this game was created by one man, Lucas Pope. The reason I put Obra Dinn on this list is for it's uniqueness and it's ingenuity. But it's idiosyncratic stylings, and impressive auteurship, are just the icing on the cake.



HARVESTER (1996)


From Steam:

You wake up one morning to a town full of strangers and inexplicable sights. You share your home with your not so perfect family and your supposed fiancée lives next door. Then you are plunged into a nightmare! Your fiancée is missing and you find a hideous bloody skull and spinal chord draped across her bed! Is it hers? What is going on? The only clue left behind is an engraved invitation for you to enter...

THE ORDER OF THE HARVEST MOON

...a mysterious organisation that controls the town in way you don't (or can't) understand.

Is the order behind this gruesome execution? What are their motives?

One thing is certain, you're going to get to the bottom of this killing, or die trying.


It is my duty to include a Full Motion Video Game in this line-up. And Harvester is the one.

FMV's are strange (and godawful) games, sometimes known as "interactive movies", produced in the 1980's - 1990's. They are unique in that instead of character sprites or models, video files are used. Actors record their scenes with a green screen, then this footage is superimposed onto computer generated environments. The result is C-list acting, on cyber-plastic sets. This looks bad.

Like most FMV's, Harvester is a point-and-click adventure in which the player must move the character, Steve, around an open world, picking up objects and talking to people. You may have guessed by now that this is also an unagreeable way to play, and the game was not regarded as feeling fun or intuitive to control. But for Interactive Fiction, we know the overall experience does not strictly need to be about the action - audiences may be happy with an engaging, immersive world.


The very special immersive world of Harvester is a self-aware one. Harvester acknowledges that it's fake, it knows it's content is offensive, and it doesn't deny it's gameplay is egregious. It knows the action is schlocky and over-the-top. Harvester spoofs 50's sitcoms, 90's horror, videogame violence, it knows what a Stepford-Wives-meets-gory-Lynchian-nightmare world would look like, and it creates that, tenfold. Besides these... choices, the game proves to be fun. It's so terrible in it's existence that it is funny, and often.

It's disgusting. It's inexplicable. The soundtrack has a Theremin.


Harvester is probably the least clever of all my Interactive examples. In fact, the game in all manners is plain crude. But only upon completion does everything come together, explaining that the campy, spoofy characters are not a glorification of violence, but a satire of such - and of the moral panic that surrounded videogame violence at the time. Having gained cult acclaim for it's absurdity, Harvester now exists in history as something so-bad-it's-good, it's a must-play game.



MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle (1985)


From wikipedia:

MAZE: Solve the World's Most Challenging Puzzle is a puzzle book written and illustrated by Christopher Manson. The book was originally published as part of a contest to win $10,000. Unlike other puzzle books, each page is involved in solving the book's riddle.


I received Christopher Manson's MAZE as a gift, ignored it for a while until I decided to crack it open as late-night "reading". How naive I was. How could I predict it would be so hard, that of the book's supposed 116+ puzzles, the solution for only 21 are presently available online. What in the name of puzzle book hell?!


MAZE can be described more literally as something of a Create Your Own Adventure novel, but the book's stylings would infer something a bit more metaphysical than this. Maze is a labyrinth, each of it's pages, rooms. With each page is a curious one-liner, implying the presence of guests and a guide. The images and text form elaborate experiments in Puzzle Theory. MAZE's gothic sketches, impossible riddles, and unavoidable sense of incompleteness leaves most readers feeling irked.

The use of mysterious, minimised text, and spooky drawings create a disturbing aura. It's a bit haunted. Like the Babadook book, or something.


Truthfully, there's not much I can say as someone without any hardcore puzzle-solving experience. The book explores many "themes", dependant on how well you can interpret them. It may be easier to crack some clues if you have prior knowledge of the Bible, Freemasons, or mythology, for example.

All this said, a good and much better unpacking of Maze is here. It's an interactive read!



HOMESTUCK (2009)


From the creator here:

While the story includes hours of animation, and thousands of relatively static panels, the overarching experience is actually more similar to reading a book. There’s a good deal of dialogue between characters, as they chat to each other over the internet during their adventure. The result is an unusual media hybrid. Something that reads like a heavily illustrated novel, frequently interrupted by cinematic Flash sequences, and sometimes even interactive games. It’s a story I’ve tried to make as much a pure expression of its medium as possible. ...The whole story is presented in the form of a mock-game that the reader "plays." We start with the hero John, and the "player" tells him what to do, by way of text commands from classic adventure games. Readers submitted these commands, and I picked ones I liked, and drew the result. Creating it was a lot like being the Dungeon Master of an RPG involving thousands of people, dealing with a similar balance of planning and improvisation. Readers have had a lot of influence on the way the story unfolded, in more ways than just submitting commands. The story is really a kind of dialogue between the readers and author. There is always a sense that the story is aware of the individual reader, and the readership overall. Much the way an adventure game tends to be cognizant of the player.


Popular amongst young internet-culture enthusiasts, Homestuck is a story about friendship, growing up, and the universe. With humble beginnings as a webcomic, Homestuck quickly spiralled into a 8,123 page multimedia experience over it's run of seven years. As described above, the format was originally a one-panel-at-a-time, text-based adventure. The comic would feed off user prompts to "advance", each new page appearing every other day, or so.

The story advanced by means of still images (or gifs), into Flash videos, then web-based games. Forty-two official music albums were released. A game based around Homestuck was funded on Kickstarter for 7 and-a-half million dollars.


So why haven't you heard of this insanely popular thing? Or why haven't you read it?? I don't know, I read Homestuck for around four years. I made a sew-on badge of "Lil Cal" for my schoolbag.

Homestuck predominantly found it's appeal with teenage and young adult readers (like me), ripe with characters for self-insertion and cosplay. Obviously, a plot about kids on the internet playing a game, appealed to kids on the internet playing a game.

Kaleidoscopic in it's intricacy, there was so much content, so much context, and so much development, the story had perfectly evolved to keep readers attached.

But Homestuck was just... so much.


The accessibility of such a project partly lies in the staggered release. A weekly, or monthly trickling of content is much easier to consume; checking for updates is a daily activity, and may even become fun. Another contemporary (and weird) example of something similar is John Dies At The End, a webserial-turned-book. JDATE's website published new chapters every week (month? day? I can't remember) accompanied with off-putting, creepy images on every page. Not only do readers become involved with the development of such projects, but with a 7-year-long project like Homestuck, they grow with it, too.


With its haphazard, super-meta narrative, Homestuck does well to build an expansive canon while retaining consistency. However, the sheer scale can take a toll on what would otherwise be a concise, well-honed story. It was a fresh new experiment on format, packaged as a King-Sized Directors Cut.

Homestuck is now arguably too huge for new readers. Bite-size, manageable instalments were a lot easier to digest at the time.

My own personal engagement within the comic was reliant on its humour and style, my relating to the characters, and the internet culture of the 2010's. Now, (fortunately) I am different, and so is the world.

...Someone tell me the ending?



LIDL BLIND WINE-TASTING (2019)


From here:

Responding to research which showed 35% of British consumers choose a wine based on bottle design, and 27% based on the label, Lidl launched Chateaux Noir in three locations across the country, Glasgow, London and Manchester.

The events, which are held over two days at each location, turned down the lights on drinkers and they challenged the senses and retrained people’s perception of wine.

Before drinkers were treated to the full in-the-dark experience they first had to pass through the ‘Discombobulation Chamber’, which was designed with clever tricks to mess with the senses. With the senses all messed up, the lights go down, the waiters put on the night vision goggles (yes, seriously) and it’s time to taste the wine.


I heard about this a little over a year ago from fellow OTHVRS member, Tessa. Tessa attended a Lidl dining-in-the-dark wine-tasting event, which used some... interesting immersive techniques.


There's not much to say about this experience other than it's weird - and clever. Putting the audience in a "Discombobulation Chamber" is one quirky way organise a queue, however most importantly it's used in a format that encourages interesting photography for social media and sharing platforms. Something necessary when the actual event is pitch black.

In the next room, guests would only be seeing their waiters as two floating orbs of light in the darkness, where the waiters' nightvision goggles would be. Consider "dining in the dark" is already a viral-ready event as it is, the use of a jazzy looking Discombobulation Chamber being a sneaky manipulation to enhance it as such.


Advertising is evil. I hate you Just Eat. Despite my contempt, and with PR-stunts being typically eyeball-gouging cringefests, if more brand promotion took shape in the form of Immersive Theatre and dining events, you can count me in.



NOTE-WORTHY OTHERS


Dungeons and Dragons: Hard to call all of DND weird without wildly generalising and offending myself. DND is a tabletop role-playing game based around DIY-storytelling, so it would be truest to say it only gets as weird as you want it to be.


Virtual Reality: Of my recommended VR viewing, I would suggest Gymnasia, by Felix and Paul. Watch it on the Oculus Store, but mind it is quite spooky.


Games: Try Papers, Please if you like The Return of The Obra Dinn, and play Problem Sleuth, instead of Homestuck.


Cosplay: Although not always interactive, cosplay is dressing up in costume as a character, from a show. OK - maybe not even a character. OK - maybe not even a show... Some examples of "weird" costumes may be Sexy Catgirl Jack Sparrow or Darth Donald Trump.


Roleplay: Congratulations if you have never encountered human beings roleplaying on the internet, before. People do this on every platform, but sometimes roleplaying accounts will be hard to spot for those not circulating in the right channels. Catch roleplaying communities on platforms such as Neopets, Tumblr, fan pages for BTS, Sex chatrooms. And in the real world, like LARPing events, war re-enactments, or Duncarron Medieval Village in Scotland. Another very popular community of note begins with "F" and ends in "urries".



CONCLUSION


These experiences vary, but all fall under the humongous "Interactive" umbrella term that I twirl here in my hands. What they share is innovation, experimentation, and participation from their audience. Some are janky, like Pathologic, or Harvester. Some are complex, like MAZE, or Homestuck. Obra Dinn and Hypnospace are both 10/10, entertaining experiences, but are simply "weird" by crime of being so unique.


What else makes the majority of these things weird? I think Games and Interactive Theatre have very special tools at their disposal. These tools are able to break the fourth wall and weird-out the audience in a way they can't escape. With recorded image, or the written word, there is passivity, and a distance between author and audience. Whatever exists can stop. We can acknowledge fiction is not real; we can look away from a painting, hit pause on a remote.

Immersive media has the potential to transcend being just a product, maybe by implying its own consciousness, or by using AI to "create life". If you don't believe this, it can at the very least plant a seed of doubt in your mind.


When Pathologic, or Homestuck addresses you, the reader in base reality, you have been made a member of the cast, a participant.

They await your next move. Whether you close your eyes, or not.



Again, these are just some favourites of mine.

Thanks for reading.





PS Some quotes I liked from my research:


Into the Abyss on the future of puzzles:

The future of immersion puzzles is the same as the future of all gaming, virtual reality. In coming years virtual gaming will be rife with action games and sporting games and many if not most of these will feature immersion puzzles inspired by the MAZE model. Possibly there may even be one or two “houses of mystery” with secret passages, winding staircases, and confounding puzzles to solve. But, for myself anyway, no game can compare with curling up with unsolved puzzle book surrounded by crumpled papers filled with maps, anagrams and strange symbols.


This review of Obra Dinn:

Ultimately, this clue system celebrates not the cleverness of a pre-written plot or of sets of mechanics, but of players—your own cleverness. The satisfaction of the game is not to roleplay as a godlike detective who has special access to clues, but to become a detective whose powers unfold and grow as you as a player construct your sets of clues.


This video on Homestuck:

In in its own weird way, Homestuck is a lot like James Joyce's Ulysses, where only the strongest, most dedicated readers make it through to the end. Most people don't expect such expansive and daunting works to find a home on the internet, but Homestuck has done it, illustrating that its followers' time and effort may actually enhance rather than lessen their devotion.


From Reina Hardy 's excellent interactive article on complex narratives:

"The harder it is to get through your labyrinth, the more your reader will like it, and the more they will value what they find at its center. It’s a trick used both in twisty genre fiction and impossible and esoteric books like Ulysses — make ’em sweat, make ’em feel smart, and they’ll remember what you have to say."



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