“The Warbler’s Nest” is Jason McIntosh’s entry to the 2010 Interactive Fiction Competition. The game tied for ninth place in the competition, which surprised me, since I felt it was a better piece than several submitted works (at least, the works that I played) which finished ahead of it. Categorized as ‘horror’ and headlined as ‘a dark fairy tale’, the game is difficult to describe as either. To be certain, there are dark elements to the story, and although this tale revolves around an old mythos, the tale itself is far more about reality than about the paranormal. I’m almost inclined to describe “The Warbler’s Nest” as a piece of historical fiction, for the plot centers on the choice that a woman of long, long ago might have to make without having the knowledge that we do today.
The protagonist begins the game in a bed of riverside reeds, not far from her home. Within a few rounds of exploration, it’s clear that something is amiss within her house, something very dreadful indeed, and it’s the player’s task to rectify what’s gone wrong. As is common with IF, the player uncovers how to accomplish this by exploring her surroundings. Brief and frequent flashbacks serve up the backstory, though it’s up to the player to fill in the details. What exactly happened is never said outright, but there are enough hints to spell out the story. More importantly, the backstory firmly forms a foundation for the protagonist’s plight.
What separates this game from other IF is atmosphere, which is conveyed with crisp, tight prose. The despair and uncertainty experienced by the protagonist pervades this story. Are the mushroom rings in your yard an indication of fairy magic, or are they simply a product of nature? At one point in the game, one of two objects that you have dutifully hunted down literally collapses in your hand. Later, a critical decision which would normally be made based on the outcome of possessing both objects must now be made with just the one. Is the one object enough to make a ‘correct’ decision? Only the player can judge.
The game revolves around the Western European mythos of the changeling, a creature of folklore—typically an elf, fairy, troll—that has been secretly swapped with a human child. Physically identical to the child, a changeling can only be identified by aberrant behavior or features, many of which we in the modern day now associate with well-known diseases or disorders. The possibility that this dark magic might be afoot fuels the player’s despair and uncertainty, and it all nicely accumulate in the player’s final, possibly heartrending, decision of the game.
If you haven’t experienced IF, then this game is a great place to start. It has all the elements of good IF scaled into a tidy package. The game world is small, the puzzles intuitive, and its vocabulary relies primarily on a standard set of actions common throughout IF. The prose is tight, elegantly written, and effectively incorporates the changeling mythology and its potentially dark consequences into the player’s endgame. This game demonstrates how IF can bring legends and character to life not only on the printed page, but within the player as well.