I read an article about the Hobbit, the novel version, recently. All right, it was on Jimbo’s Big Bag of On-line Trivia. The article said that the novel contained lots of descriptions of Bilbo’s larder in the Shire, because children would be interested in the descriptions of all the food. I was so impressed with that insight that when I vandalized the article to just contain a 4K photo of a giant spider for future arachnophobes, I left that part in. I was reminded of the power of food playing Bee. Food that I would only eat if having lunch over a job interview to my chagrin popped up – pea soup, brown bread (sorry, CANNED brown bread!) — lentils everywhere, and rice with red beans which isn’t that great unless prepared by an incomprehensible Cajun.
Food, though, is just one of the things used to paint the picture of the family that you are a part of. This family was rather different from my own and I enjoyed seeing the world from their perspectives. There is a lovely spot in the game where the family is putting labels on jars of preserves. Putting aside, for a second, the concept of fruit being in the house, the interplay in the family’s craft, and perfectionism when it came to a can label was nothing along the lines of what I had growing up. Bee successfully creates a virtual world to experience. For me, that is what IF is all about. A journey into such a different world is what I love about interactive fiction; I mean, I can accumulate demerits from Ensign Blather with the best of them, but this world was in many ways richer.
I’d never played a Varytale before, so I wasn’t 100% up on the platform shortcuts or what was expected of me. When I got into my first competition Bee eliminated choices that my character wouldn’t possibly say, I suspect because my spelling attribute was high. So I had four choices for “cacophony,” but some were ghosted. Also, I never use words that have “k”s in them and I wasn’t about to start now. (That said, if some future programmer for the Varytale software adds the red squiggle pattern under misspelled words in the presented text, they are going to screw this story up. Thus expect this to be the first thing implemented should Varytale be acquired by Games for Windows Live.)
A lot of choices are cyclical, as the months in Bee progress, so there are lots to do that do not involve vocabulary words. Each one was a treat, as I had no idea what was going to happen when I selected one (though none disrupted my expectations more than when I chose the one called Advent).
One of the specific bits of writing that resonated with me was a line about gardening, a distraction I sort of loathe:
You work in stripes, listening to past spelling bees in your headphones. It’s not a perfect drill method, but it means the time under the hot sun isn’t totally wasted.
This is a universal truth, except for people whose self-respect extends to their gardens. It’s time that could be spent on things that matter. I could try to distance myself at this point and say that maybe I shouldn’t turn towards children for philosophies on weed and treant maintenance, or I could state that Bee taught me something… then get a novel on tape on MP3, “plug in” and learn Python.
I got snippets of the other characters in Bee and did wish there was a chance to learn more about them. One, in particular, was Jerome, although when we all went to the zoo I wasn’t sure if the story was indicating that he was showing aptitude to become a veterinarian or the next Re-Animator.
Another one of the things I loved was that for one stretch, Difficulties With Money continually showed up as an option. I have never seen anything approaching that in IF – while what happened when I selected that one did not seem to change, its appearance was always about, always on the screen, an unstoppable force. A very real one, too, and not a video game monster. Just by being selectable constantly, it was a specter of just how poorly the family was doing with money. That was a wonderful design.
The ending I got depicted a family where the children were in public school and mom had to get a job — I am hesitant to call that a bad ending, because that’s how things really were for me growing up, though I guess my mother’s opinion on whether it was “good” or not would probably hold more weight. I can’t categorize this Varytale experience as a role-playing game, CYOA story, text adventure, all three or something in between, but Bee made me want to spend more time with the people inside it, which is more important than classification, anyway.
Update: Bee is now available here on itch.io.