An Interview with Autumn Chen

Drew chats to critically acclaimed IF author Autumn Chen.

21 mins read

Rosebush editor Drew Cook had an online conversation with critically acclaimed author Autumn Chen. Her interactive fiction games include The Archivist and the Revolution and A Paradox Between Worlds. Autumn is also very active as an organizer and supporter of IF development jams, including the Goncharov Game Jam, which was the subject of a talk at Narrascope 2023. Autumn maintains her own version of the IF storylet platform Dendry, and she assisted Emily Short in releasing a complete port of Bee, a game that audiences had long despaired of playing in full.

Drew Cook: Hi, Autumn. Thanks for agreeing to do this. I’d like to ask how you first became interested in interactive fiction. Were there particular games involved? What attracted and sustained your interest in it? Were you always interested in writing games, or did that come later?

Autumn Chen: Hi Drew! I don’t remember exactly how I first got involved in IF; it was probably through reading some indie game sites in the early 2010s. The first games I played might have been visual novels – I liked Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story  and Analogue: A Hate Story. There were also Choice of Games, like Choice of Romance, Choice of Broadsides, and Choice of Robots. For parser games, some early games I played include Galatea, Photopia, and Rameses, which are obviously pretty unrepresentative of parser as a whole, but those were the games that I enjoyed.

I guess I was mostly interested in the interactive storytelling aspect of IF? It’s like reading a book but more fun. I also liked that there were a lot of stories that centered women and LGBTQ people, which seemed to be less present in the broader videogame and literary spaces at that time, although it’s changing now. At first I was more interested in playing than writing games, but it didn’t take too long for me to discover IF writing.

DC: For a project I just finished, I had to research the release and reception of Porpentine’s Howling Dogs. Rereading “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution” was an important part of that work. She wrote that the relationships between author, audience, class, capital, and minority status are significantly affected by the technology driving a game.

Do you see a connection between player/author communities, development systems, and inclusiveness? 

AC: I would prefer to not make any generalizations about the inclusiveness of any game development systems or communities. But, it’s hard not to see that most game developers live in the global north, and they’re relatively educated and technically proficient. So that kind of colors every game development community, even the ones that tend to be friendlier to outside voices.

DC: One thing I noted while replaying The Archivist and the Revolution was how easy it was to play on a phone. During the brief time that I taught college composition, I learned that many of my students did not own computers. They would have been able to play a great many games on their phones.

Does phone support require any special effort or testing for your games? Do you consider this type of accessibility in your projects? Or does everything just work?

AC: For Choicescript, mobile compatibility is basically built-in; there’s nothing special you need to do. Dendry originally did not have mobile compatibility, but I added in mobile formatting; that’s something that’s now part of Bee by Emily Short as well. I’m not as familiar with Twine. I think it depends on the story format, and also a lot of people have made HTML/CSS styles that make games work better on mobile.

I haven’t spent much time on mobile testing for Dendry. Most of my games have relatively simple styles with just one text box, without toolbars or popups or anything like that. Bee was somewhat more complicated because of the stats sidebar, so I spent more time figuring out how that would work for different screen sizes.

DC: Autumn, do you think people need stories? Why are stories important (if they are)? If a more specific question is better, why are stories important to you? Why do you tell stories?

AC: I’m not sure if I can answer that question well because it’s kind of vague… There are a lot of reasons why I write, and it might be different for each story. Sometimes I just want to explore an idea, like either a technical/mechanical idea or a story concept. Some of them are based on imaginary fantasy worlds that I just think about a lot. And then a lot of my stories were essentially written as a coping mechanism, as a way for me to process certain events or stuff that’s going on. Maybe they’re to share some of my experiences with the world, to feel less alone, to see if anyone else is feeling the same way. Most of my games were written for a combination of all of these reasons.

DC: I see your work as very concerned with storytelling and narratives beyond the throughlines of the stories. Take the narrative framing in Great-Grandmother and the War. In your postmortem of that game, you discuss its intent and ultimately judge it undeveloped. “There could have been a lot more done with the asides. This story is supposed to be great-grandmother Xiaoyun telling a story to Lanlan; maybe Lanlan is making all sorts of comments, maybe great-grandmother is saying all sorts of extraneous things.”

I’m interested in your thought that you could possibly use Windrift to complicate its mostly linear text, [In the postmortem for Great-Grandmother and the War, Autumn mentioned Windrift, the platform used to write Harmonia, as a way to extend the contents of a linear text.] If you ever were to do so, how would you approach that opportunity?

AC: I guess a good first step would be to learn how to use Windrift in the first place? And maybe write some more asides and dialogue for the frame story, to be used as sidenotes in Windrift. And then there’s designing the aesthetics of the thing, how it looks, with background images or illustrations or stuff like that.

But it’s not a project I seriously considered doing. Honestly, there are always changes, improvements, and optimizations I could make to any project; at some point I just have to say, this is finished, I’m not touching it anymore, and move on.

DC: So far as moving on goes, where do you draw that line? Is it purely arbitrary, or do you have specific requirements for each or every game? While I have no scientific data to support this, I do feel that your games seem to get substantial post-comp/festival releases in a time where this is less common.

AC: Yeah, I always think I’m going to add more to the games, but I always end up adding less content than I had hoped. How I draw the line at which point I stop is different for each game. It’s mostly just vibes as opposed to anything specific, and sometimes it’s just becoming tired of a project and wanting to move on. I’ve mostly finished the planned updates for Archivist & Revolution, but I still haven’t finished them for APBW. One thing I want to do in the future is to put Pageant and NYE2019 [New Year’s Eve, 2019] onto Steam, but I don’t know if that’s something that will ever be done.

DC: I thought about both Pageant and New Year’s Eve, 2019 while writing my game Repeat the Ending. For me, they were examples of how to handle or write gameplay that is constrained by the protagonist in some way. Karen’s anxiety feels mechanically significant, which I considered important for an honest portrayal of her character. In your postmortem for Pageant, you wrote:

Pageant – A Chinese teenager navigates through life

Is the game actually enjoyable to play? What is the motivation for the player to continue? Since there’s not much in the way of “success” or player feedback or gamification, is the enjoyment just based on the writing, as if this were purely an interactive novel? If so, I doubt that the writing alone is strong enough to carry the story. Who is the audience for this?

Since it’s been two and a half years since you wrote the postmortem for Pageant, I wonder if you have further thoughts on audience reactions to it? Do those reactions relate to the presence or absence of enjoyment in video games, whether they be yours or just IF generally?

AC: Wow, it’s really cool that you thought about those games while writing Repeat the Ending – I haven’t had a chance to play that yet, but it looks very interesting, and extremely my kind of thing.

I think I was rather pessimistic and self-deprecating in the postmortem for Pageant, which kind of relates to the loneliness and isolation I felt at the time. When I first published the game, I didn’t receive a ton of feedback, but I think I was just impatient. I was posting about the game on the Choice of Games forum, which might not have been the right audience for something like this. Anyway, it took a while for the game to find its audience. The highest views I got were when a few Tumblr users with much larger followings than me boosted the game, which is probably some kind of lesson.

As for broader lessons about what “enjoyable” games… I really don’t know. I think the IF community has a lot of tolerance for games that might not be traditionally “fun”, including ones much more out there than Pageant. And I play and write unfun games too, so it’s all good.

DC: Still, as a discourse, IF is at least haunted by the idea of “fun.” I think that Pageant, New Year’s, 2019, and The Archivist and the Revolution are critical of games I consider “fantasies of mastery”. You mention dating sims in your postmortems for both of the Pageantverse games, and resist the design trope that people are essentially logistical problems to be mapped and mastered.

I have a confession: I’ve played both Pageantverse games multiple times, and my Karen has never been in a relationship. Why? I didn’t want her to get hurt. I felt responsible, and that made me risk-averse.

I think interactive fiction can achieve a lot, aesthetically and mechanically, but feeling a sense of responsibility for the/an other borne out of player agency is a very powerful experience. Your games achieve this, which is what attracts me to them. I wonder: what are your thoughts on the relationship between protagonist and player? Do you have any thoughts on experiences of empathy or responsibility as outcomes from playing/reading interactive fiction, either as player or author?

AC: I feel like the second-person narrative style in IF (plus the interactivity) is really good at creating a sense of identification between the player and the viewpoint character – it’s like, “you” are doing whatever, and “you” are making the choices the character is making, so it’s easy to develop a sense of responsibility for the player character that you don’t get in a static fiction. But often that’s used for blank-slate or self-insert protagonists rather than empathy with a specific person. The triangle of identities might be relevant here. The triangle is implicit even when a writer isn’t directly thinking about it (although in choice-based IF, I feel like the narrator is usually invisible).

In my games, I like creating characters, and I want people to sympathize with them. When writing Pageant, I thought that Karen Zhao would be pretty different in background and personality from most people playing games, so I wasn’t really sure if people could really relate or empathize with her. I was kind of surprised at how many people found Pageant and NYE2019 relatable!

I guess in both IF and fiction more broadly, there’s a tension between the universal and the specific. A lot of IF games try to be “universal”—via AFGNCAAPs or heavily customizable protagonists—both are supposed to be for self-inserts I think. And there’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s not mine. In my games, I try to be hyper-specific, to get inside the heads of the protagonists and show what their deal is, via both the narration and the space of available choices (an unfortunate part of this approach is that it works best with characters who are similar to me in some way, and is harder for characters with different backgrounds/personalities). And I guess that resonated with some people? Sometimes the hyper-specific approach might result in more identification with the protagonist than the universal approach. APBW was a little different as Luna wasn’t the viewpoint character but she was a main character, whereas the player character was kind of an AFGNCAAP nonentity, so Luna was the character I tried to get inside the head of.

By the way, I’m kind of surprised that you never got Karen into a relationship and still enjoyed the games! I feel like the relationships are kind of important in both games. There are a couple of Pageantverse sequel ideas I have, and one of them focuses heavily on Karen and Emily’s developing relationship.

DC: To be clear: I interacted with the romantic interests a lot, Emily in particular. I didn’t ignore those mechanics! It’s just that, when a moment of truth arrived, my Karen retreated into herself.

In your postmortem for New Year’s Eve, 2019, you say that “queering the binary between narrative and mechanics” is “a joke. it is also my entire design philosophy.” In my experience, the best jokes are based on truths. Ultimately, the idea that humans can be reduced to calculations and outputs is fundamentally capitalist. All of your Dendry games reject such quantifications, but New Year’s Eve most visibly rebels against this tendency. Its numbers are a sham; only qualities matter. Can you talk about the phenomena of subversion and resistance in your games, in terms of both narrative and design?

AC: I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, I really love numbers and quantification – I studied and work in STEM. And I would very much disagree that treating humans as calculations and outputs is solely the domain of capitalism (industrialization, maybe). But too much quantification and “rationality” leads to dark places, like when people start being treated as bags of demographics and not as individuals, or when certain groups can be considered expendable. It’s a way of thinking that fetishizes “hard choices” even when those choices are avoidable. But, I think quantification can provide a framework for resistance to hyper-“rationality” as well – for example, the phrase “locally optimal, globally absurd” is one I think about a lot.

But my stories are not really about the broader questions of economics and the surveillance state (although A&R touches on that a little bit). They’re small stories about individuals and relationships. Many of my game protagonists are STEM people, and many of them have tendencies to quantify even in their relationships (in Karen’s case I think it’s related to her anxiety). I wrote these bits in my stories as sort of a reality check on that sort of STEM-brained or gamer-brained tendency to view everything through the lens of math and numbers (a tendency I sometimes share); the games are like that in part to remind myself to let go of trying to quantify people, because people are too complicated and interesting for that. And of course it’s all part of a meta-joke about game mechanics (which can never be truly free of quantification). But I don’t think it’s inherently wrong that people draw metaphors from math and science in how they approach people and relationships.

DC: You’ve made a significant investment in Dendry, haven’t you? What’s that been like, and is anyone else using it (or considering using it)?

AC: I have heard from a few people who were interested in Dendry, although I think the only published games in Dendry have been mine, plus Bee by Emily Short. There have been six games released in Dendry so far, which is only one less than the number of games released using Dialog, a system that gets way more discussion on the forums.

Using Dendry is great! It’s my preferred development platform because I don’t think there’s anything quite like it for making quality-based narratives. The closest might be twine/twee2 with several extensions, but generally I like the Dendry aesthetic more, and it’s easier for me to get into the guts of Dendry and customize things.

DC: What’s your relationship with IFDB [The Interactive Fiction Database] like? How seriously do you take reviews? You won the Golden Banana of Discord for APBW, which I believe you liked. What does the GBoD signify to you, and why are you glad to have won it?

AC: I love IFDB! I read every review of my games (and I read at least some of the reviews of every IF I play that has reviews). I used to write more reviews but haven’t done a lot of that recently (it feels a little uncouth as an author).

I liked that the Golden Banana put me in the company of some of my favorite authors and games, like Porpentine’s howling dogs and with those we love alive, and furkle’s SPY INTRIGUE. A lot of these are games that get discussed a lot or will end up with a much better reputation in 5 years. I don’t know if that’s the case for APBW, but…

DC: We haven’t discussed your most recent work yet: The Archivist and the Revolution.

AC: Sure, what about it?

DC: Before even getting into the gameplay loop: in A Paradox Between Worlds and the Pageantverse games, there are trans characters that are central to the story, but the protagonist isn’t necessarily trans. Em’s life as a trans person is crucial to the story of A&R, obviously. But this was a change for you as a writer. Thoughts?

AC: For A&R, the protagonist being trans happened to fit the story and the setting, whereas Karen Zhao was a character who has existed fully-formed in my head for a while, and in APBW, I was going for more of a Choicescript-style customizable protagonist.

But I also feel like in this political moment, I must write stories about trans women, because we’re under so much political attack, because it feels like the lies about us are just festering everywhere without any real counter-narrative, because mainstream media isn’t. This game has about as many named trans women as every broadcast, cable, and streaming TV show in 2020 combined.

Of course, it’s not like me writing IF would change anything on that larger scale; IF is read by an insular community that for the most part is relatively decent about trans people; it’s just preaching to the choir. But I don’t think mainstream media is going to get better soon, and in fact might become much worse, so I feel like there has to be a counter-narrative somewhere.

But there’s also a part of this that’s like, I’m writing this mostly as a personal coping method. Writing stories like this, from the perspective of trans people who are both like and unlike me in various ways, is a kind of personal catharsis. It’s a way of working through my own feelings.

DC: Em is such a thoroughly-realized character. We read her responses to archives, to television, to everything. For me as a player, it felt… I think it felt intimate, being so close to the inner life of a character. & yet, there was space to help determine who she was. Players can even decide if her memories are accurate. As well as we came to know Karen, we get closer to Em, I think.

AC: Thanks… I’m glad these characters manage to feel real.

DC: The world of A&R is really dark. I recall players mentioning that during IF Comp, but it still fared well in the competition. I guess “dark” is kind of a shallow, blithe word to use, but this future is pretty awful. I’d have to write a lot to do it justice. From Em’s point of view, it’s illegal for her to exist as the person she is, which makes every trip outside feel fraught. That’s in addition to the collapse of the world’s ecosystems. Is all hope lost in this future? Some endings for Em are better than others…

AC: Well, from some of the history-related notes and documents, you kind of get the impression that it has all happened before. Really terrible stuff has happened in the city in the past, regimes just as oppressive and brutal, and they managed to eventually move past it, even if it took hundreds of years, even if the time between “old terrible stuff ends” and “new terrible stuff begins” is too brief. So… I don’t know if that counts as hope?

On the other hand, there are the “posthumans”, and there are other arcologies in this world, not just the one. So we don’t really have much of a clue what’s going on in these other places. Are they going through the same things? Is it better in those societies? I have multiple conflicting thoughts about that, so I’m considering exploring those settings in other stories (maybe; don’t count on it).

I guess Em’s perspective is a pretty limited one, even if she might have more knowledge of the city’s history than most people.

DC: Archives and perspective. Yes. One of the things I admire about A&R is the way it integrates other texts into its primary text. I feel almost like A&R synthesizes what was best in APBW with the Pageant games. You have this loop of engaging with texts nested in the larger loop of illness, economy, and medications. The archives are such a great way to do worldbuilding. Even the Wikipedia articles take on a dark irony. It [the archive mechanic] must have bought you a lot of flexibility as a writer.

AC: I really love writing stories with multiple layers of narrative to them, like this game and APBW. It gives flexibility, but it also has constraints; you have to think about, under which context was this particular document preserved? Why was this particular document chosen to be archived? And that context can itself be a part of the worldbuilding.

To get the Wikipedia articles, I basically clicked Random Article until I hit upon something interesting, and then added that to the story. So… most of it isn’t exactly intentional.

DC: Still, you must have realized how banal and inadequate they [the Wikipedia articles] were within the context of A&R. I think you still deserve the credit. I mentioned to you previously that my Karen was too risk averse to get in a relationship. Em went totally a different way. I really felt like Em needed someone to survive, or multiple someones. The world was just too hostile. The player can decide how cynical engagements with A and K are, but I don’t think it matters in the end. This, too, is a change for you, since I think Karen and Em are a canon romantic relationship in the Pageantverse.

AC: It’s interesting that you played Karen and Em in such different ways! Yeah, for Em, the relationships can be totally instrumental or transactional and it’s easy to choose that, while for Karen, I think the story explicitly argues against relationships being transactional. I hadn’t thought about it like that before.

It’s also interesting since K and Em from A&R are kind of “expies” [exported characters from unrelated works] of Karen and Emily from the Pageantverse… [The two Pageantverse games are Pageant and New Year’s, 2019].

DC: Having played several times, I find that I always end up with K when I go with the flow. Re: “expies”, yes! I kind of think of A&R as a dark timeline of the Pageantverse. I think the feeling that I’d already known incarnations of those characters was a source of empathy. I was sad to see things turn out that way for them.

You recently released version two of A&R, along with a project postmortem. You mention several changes and enhancements, but what do you think is the most important aspect of this new release?

AC: To be honest, I don’t know if I can specify which aspect is the most important… The dreams/flashbacks/memories maybe, because they partially show what Em’s life was like in the past? Or maybe some of the expanded datasets, although I doubt most people will see them.

DC: I thought the dreams (and the like) were really strong additions because, as you say, they further develop Em’s character. Do you feel that you’ll update A&R again? Or is this possibly its final form? 

AC: I might make small changes here and there, or if anyone has any bug reports or something like that. There are a few scenes I wanted to add for the endings, maybe in how different characters might interact (spoilers: the polycule isn’t getting back together, but maybe K could talk to Liana or the mutual aid people?). But that isn’t like, a very high priority. For now, I’m ready to be done with this game.

DC: Yeah, I think K and A should probably not be in the same room together.

My favorite ending is… what is called? “Escape?” The Liana ending. What are your thoughts on the different endings?

AC: I liked that ending too! I definitely didn’t treat all the endings equally with how much I invested into writing them; a lot of the “Alone” endings just blurred together. I like the K ending, which is another kind of hopeful one. The A endings might be going too hard on the “instrumentalizing the relationship” path, but they might turn out well, too. And the Mutual Aid ending is one I didn’t spend a lot of time on, but there could be an interesting story there.

The world is ending : Surviving in a post-apocalyptic dystopia

DC: Yeah, I think K is hopeful. S seems like a good kid, too. I thought the hug with him was very sweet. No possibility of transaction there, I don’t think. It’s special, especially in that world.

This might sound strange, but another really important thing about release two is the postmortem. It comes from a personal place, but the personal never overshadows the logical or the thoughtful. Acknowledging the size of our community [In Autumn’s post-mortem for The Archivist and the Revolution, she shared a Kurt Vonnegut quote regarding 1960s artists and their inability to prevent or end the Vietnam War.], can art still do some good? I think the line between solidarity and a depiction of an “unlivable life” [Socialogist Laurel Westbrook uses this term to characterize a persistent state of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness as “an unlivable life.”] might be thin at times; in a larger community, would the same problem exist?

AC: It’s hard to say. I mean, I think the chances of my games affecting political change is approximately zero. As for art in general (i.e. stuff in the broad category of “political”/”personal” story, not necessarily A&R) doing good, well, maybe they can help connect people who feel the same things but don’t know how to talk about their experiences? For me, at least, reading “sad” or pessimistic or negative stories is helpful because they make me feel less alone, like maybe someone else out there is feeling the same things. I know some other people feel the same way.

I don’t know if it’s possible for any kind of “indie” art to affect change, because these communities seem to me to be mostly insular, and all art that’s popular is going to have people who don’t take the same things out of it.

DC: My problems are very different, but art that makes me feel more connected to people with similar stories also makes me feel less alone. I also think that since Em is so well-developed, A&R is a great example of how IF can help us imagine the lives of other people.

Looking at your Tumblr or reading your postmortems, it seems that you have a lot of ideas in various stages of formation. What should we look for from you next? Will you be entering IFComp again this year?

AC: I might be entering IFComp again this year, possibly with a new collaboration or a project I’ve been working on for a while (or both). But in the nearer term, I have a few smaller projects for a couple of itch.io jams that some friends and I are co-hosting, the Anti-Romance Jam and the Neo-Twiny jam. But these projects might balloon to IFComp size anyway.

DC: Ah, yes! I know you are talking about Goncharov at Narrascope, so I won’t press you on that. But what do you like about jams? As writer, organizer, player?

AC: Well, to be honest, I join a lot of game jams on itch.io but never submit to most of them. I like jams because they have constraints and a deadline, and I like having constraints and a deadline because it’s easier for me to write something when there is a definite endpoint.

DC: They seem like a lot of fun, though I don’t think I’d ever finish anything on time. In terms of constraints, I think the Neo-Twiny jam sounds very interesting. I’ll check some of those games out for sure.

Version two of A Paradox Between Worlds. I’ve gathered that a Dendry port would probably be too much trouble. Is that right? Is there a lot to fix/change if it stays in ChoiceScript?

AC: Haha, yeah, a Dendry port would be more trouble than it’s worth I feel like. There isn’t a ton left that I wanted to change; I’ve just been too concerned with other things to go back and add in the bits of remaining content.

Again, this is part of the problem with not having definite deadlines.

DC: Well, all this stuff is a labor of love. I think most people would like new content, anyway, though I love APBW, as you already know.

I won’t say “favorite,” because it isn’t a contest, but, as a final question, would you name three IF authors that you enjoy, value, and/or respect, and why? Feel free to go into as much or as little detail as you like.

AC: Oh jeez, it’s really hard to name only three; there are so many IF authors I respect… Okay, for some authors who have been really influential on me but whose games aren’t discussed a lot on intfiction: Furkle, Anya DeNiro, and kaleidofish?

DC: Three is hard! I thought about five, but that probably would have been hard, too. Thanks for doing this conversation! I think people will really enjoy it.

AC: Thank you so much for talking to me!



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Drew Cook

Drew Cook lives in southern Louisiana (USA) with three cats and his partner, Callie. He writes about 1980s interactive fiction at Gold Machine, where he intends to assess every game published by Infocom. Drew is also the author of "Repeat the Ending," which received a "Best in Show" ribbon at the 2023 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction.