This novella-length work from Emily Short is available through the platform Varytale. Short’s writing is as evocative as ever in this lengthy work, and it really works well to demonstrate the capabilities of the platform and the medium as a whole.
Bee follows the world of a young, home-schooled Spelling Bee wiz as she navigates the home school co-op, her conservative parents (who feel that painted nails are the marks of a Jezebel) as well as practicing so that she can go to nationals. The game is long, and I played it over the course of a weekend, and it has four possible endings.
While reading Bee, I was struck at how much it reminded me of Swamplandia by Karen Russell. While Bee does not have the faint whiff of magical realism to be found in the bayou world of Russell’s Swamplandia, it certainly manages to capture the world of a young girl trapped within her parents control.
With Varytale’s controls, it feels as though you are navigating the way your character feels throughout a functional story rather than your taking part in creating the story. That is a strong difference than traditional parser interactive fiction. While there were stats to control, acquaintances to make, and Zulu root words to study, it felt like I was seeing the world through a characters eyes rather than an active participant in the way the story engaged. This is not a slight to Short’s writing, which was deft and well-conceived, it was just an unexpected experience.
Your character has a series of complicated relationships in her life. Her relationship with her parents, with the homeschool co-op celebrity Mrs. Perry, with the agitated Mrs. Barron, with kids her own age and with herself. By nature, she’s secluded, kept away from public school by her parent’s fears. She’s set up as an example to demonstrate the humanity of home-schooled children, but at the same time sheltered so that her fears about her tutors’ failings are that she is either a feminist or an atheist. Short writes in such a away that even though I, the player, am experiencing moments of my selection, they still feel like like they are contributing to a whole and complete character. Her world — her conservative parents and her charming sister — are as well and fully fleshed out as if they were standing in front of me. Her passion for words, her desire for understanding, are all bits of what make her a distinct character. The rest of the stories population feels equally formed.
The nature of the randomized scenes, sprinkled throughout the story, is that you will occasionally run across them multiple times. I encountered studying for German Root Words what seemed like half a dozen times before the conclusion of the game, and it was starting to wear thin. The charm in Short’s writing is that it feels fresh. A repeat passage sullies that experience a little bit.
The story does not overstay it’s welcome, even though it is among the longer interactive fiction pieces I have read recently. The conclusion I reached felt like a natural one, and the way it was expressed made a lot of sense in the context of Bee overall. Emily Short has long distinguished herself as a sterling example of the medium, and Bee is no exception.
You can play Bee on the Varytale site, as well as several other Varytale variety novella’s and experiences.