Well behind schedule, this is the first of the 42 IFComp 2014 entries I intend to review. A lot of reviews are written as a sort of consumer advice or summary of the work. I’m not really interested in that. I’m going to assume that you’ve played Eidolon by A.D. Jansen or are at least interested in reading a review as if you had read it. Here I’m looking mostly at how well its interactive elements function, though there is certainly more I’d like to say about its literary qualities.
These are some notes towards an interpretation of My Heart is a Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole by Kristen Stewart. At first it seems quite oblique, but I think cumulatively the poem is about how she is isolated with and alienated from the person she loves: she looks for signs of affection, knowing she can’t hold on to them: they pore out her porous heart, and yet she is drunk on these tiny morsels. This is what it is to love the man who says he is a rock, an island.
//My Heart is a Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole//
Wiffle balls are light and perforated. This image of the pierced heart that cannot hold its blood (feelings?) is the key to this poem. The freedom pole is the cohering image for the second part of the poem, and represents isolation-as-freedom.
//I reared digital moonlight//
She cultivated a habit of staying inside, at night or in day with curtains drawn, in the glare of a screen. More figuratively, she has isolated herself, but superficially she is in company. On the internet we are all together, alone.
//You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black//
Following the image, ‘You’ read the clock on the laptop, it was obvious what time it was. To the recipient of the poem it was clear what she was like.
//Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen//
She (or is it ‘you’? does this modify the previous or the next line?) felt disappointed, but more than that, that her disappointment permeated everything and was inevitable. In second reading, it’s obvious now that the initial sentence that emerged in her mind was ‘kismetly crest fallen’, which is perhaps too alliterative for the sentiment. The jarring ‘ubiquitously’ breaks this up, the dissonance of structure reinforcing the mood of the line.
//Thrown down to strafe your foothills//
This is a nice extended metaphor: she has fallen off the crest, and is side-stepping in the foothill below ‘your’ great heights.
//…I’ll suck the bones pretty.//
She’ll try to make the most out of the poor situation but she know’s its impossible. You literally can’t suck bones pretty.
//Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps//
The discrete pumpings of an organ (the heart) are abrasive and perforated: it hurts for her heart to beat and each beat is made weaker/futile by your presence.
//Spray painted everything known to man,//
The blood sprays out the perforated heart, coating everything. This is spray which has painted, not a spray-painting. Stewart again re-enlivens a dead metaphor.
//Stream rushed through and all out into
Her life-blood (cleverly never directly alluded to but implied by the unifying heart metaphor), pumps into the wiffle ball heart and streams out into a known unknown.
/Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up//
So, the light outside starts to break in and disturb the self-imposed darkness. (This being stuck inside thing is the second unifying metaphor)
//He hit your flint face and it sparked.//
So, the ‘sun’ was a metaphor for another man, who starts to impose on this unhealthy relationship. He strikes the ‘you’ sparking (great imagery here) something…
//And I bellowed and you parked//
She’s perturbed by the fighting (which might or might not be figurative) and ‘you’ held your ground.
//We reached Marfa.//
A town in Texas, in the middle of a desert. While this town was probably chosen because she was writing this poem during a road trip, the town itself is another metaphor for the freedom pole.
//One honest day up on this freedom pole//
Calls to mind the Simeon stylites on their poles in the desert. Freedom as isolation. Marfa in the desert, together alone.
//Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle//
Despite (or because of) isolating themselves further, their relationship continues to be racked with misunderstandings.
//And this pining erosion is getting dust in
This erosion of their relationship is painful but also makes it harder for her to see the situation clearly.
//And I’m drunk on your morsels//
But she’s still in thrall to him: drunk on even the tiny morsels of attention/love/??? that he gives her or that she reads into what he says.
//And so I look down the line//
And so she doesn’t seek an alternative to this life she’s found herself in
//Your every twitch hand drum salute
Salutes mine …//
She looks to his tiny movements for a sign of affirmation
[edit. 17.02.14 – realised I’d spelt her name wrong! Sorry!]
Their angelic understanding is a strong title and the title of a work is the first thing you notice. Some titles are easily forgotten, you have to look at the spine or the executable to remind yourself. A good title is memorable and also relevant to the core theme of the work. Final Girl was about the Final Girl of horror movie analysis, Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House included all those things but it was really about loss, Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder was, suitable enough about the Captain’s plunder. We’d expect Their angelic understanding to be about someone with angelic understanding, and that the specific nature of this understanding to be integral to the story.
At its best, Storynexus is a fun platform for story games. I enjoyed Fallen London but I got bored by the grinding and I with all the vagueness I never had a particularly clear idea of my character. The third IF Comp 2013 game I’ve played, Hanon Ondricek’s Final Girl, is a different kettle of fish.
The Storynexus medium typically has the player travel between different nodes, increasing or decreasing skills and undertaking tests of these skills, as well as playing randomly drawn event cards. Final Girl uses some of these features to good effect while other parts felt a little bit clumsy.
The aim of the game is to take on the role of the surviving character in a slasher flick. Interestingly, it begins in the midst of things with what appears to be the conclusion of things, before a dramatic reveal. At its best, it’s high stakes and dramatic. At it’s worst, there’s typical story nexus repetitive scenes. Tonally, the game is slightly tongue in cheek but contains genuinely horrifying moments.
The strong character focus of Storynexus is manifest in Final Girl with the sidebar of equipment, knowledge and stats. At any moment the player can review what they currently know. This is a good thing for solving the mystery (you wouldn’t see this elegant presentation of remaining survivors in a typical parser game, for instance).
Storynexus allows for a lot of random elements, and this was most evident in the random identity of the bodies you find. This increases the chance of seeing new content on replays as even if you take the same path as before, you’ll see new flashbacks.
The flashbacks accompanying each body you find were a neat way of telling the backstory, setting up prior tensions, revealing hidden places and fleshing out the large cast of teenage victims. Unfortunately, here as in some other points in the game, there was Storynexus weirdness where the player had to click through some placeholder screens to get to the next bit of content. This inelegant handling is presumably a temporary fix for some issue, as it appeared throughout the title.
When crossing from one side of the lake to the other (through the woods or across the lake) there were a lot of very repetitive card scenes that could have been shortened and kept the desired effect. Overall the cards were weakest part of the game, with a lot of very similar forest cards. I wish there was some more variety to the stalker attacks: usually I fled and then rolled away and repeated until it worked. Some other options or more area-conditional attacks (like the boat and chainsaw attacks) would have been welcome.
There was a bit of oddness with the second scene, where the player waits by the car for the sheriff. On my first playthrough I was able to wait in the sheriff’s car and take a moment to calm down. On all subsequent playthroughs entering the car proved to be fatal. Perhaps it was a poorly indicated random chance thing.
The writing was competent and often inventive: Ondricek obviously knows the slasher genre well: the title itself is a reference to the name of the common element in many horror films where the final survivor is the least overtly sexualised girl of the film. The knowingness and strength of implementation make Final Girl more than just a pastiche. While it’s not certain whether the protagonist wants to escape or uncover the mystery, the player is definitely rewarded for trying to get to the bottom of things. Replaying is even made easier by the meta-game intro-skip on successive playthroughs, which was a very nice touch. Likewise, the ‘reviews’ at the end act as a concrete reminder of what the player has achieved and what they might achieve better on replaying.
The slasher film genre is ethically dubious. Typically, women in them are punished for their licentiousness while simultaneously being presented in a deeply sexualised way. Final Girl‘s one-stepped removed approach allows the player to enjoy a game in the genre more easily as many of the elements are strongly lamp-shaded and the story focus is on the female protagonist’s resourcefulness and agency. I’m not convinced entirely about the shaming element to the virginity loss flashback (I’m not sure how straight were supposed to take the message you only had it once to give). The other characters (male and female), though drawn from stock roles, are fleshed out in small ways through the flashbacks and so some effort has been made to present the victims as people as well as numbers in a literal body count.
Overall, Final Girl is a successful experiment with the Storynexus medium to give a fun slasher-genre experience. The typical Storynexus repetition is present but not overwhelming so and having effectively unlimited actions meant that the game moves along at a quick pace you’d hope for in a thriller. The translation of the horror film tropes to such a different kind of medium was impressive and there was a certain kind of joy to be had in recognising familiar filmic elements in the unfamiliar medium.
When judging and comparing disparate kinds of creative works, I like to ask myself whether they succeed in doing what the creator appears to have intended to do. This approach doesn’t gel with those Death of the Author types that seem to think reading is like taking a Rorschach test. Intentions are embodied in behaviour and, though there is definitely a lot of scope for mistake, it would be absurd to suggest that we’re absolutely uncertain about what was intended.
Thus, in the case of Mark Marino & family’s Mrs. Wobbles & The Tangerine House, I find myself asking whether it succeeds as an interactive children’s story for ages 6-12.
A tricky element to judging the comp is giving ratings: the quantification of a qualitative experience. So, I’ve decided I’ll order the games in terms of quality and success in relation to one another and then spread them out across a 2-9 spectrum, with 1 and 10 reseved for any truly outstanding games.
As such, as Ryan Veeder’s Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder is the first game I’ve looked at, there is no numerical rating.
Spoiler filled review under the cut.