Deirdra Kiai on Best Story 2012

Deirdra Kiai writes on Changes, Eurydice, First Draft of the Revolution and howling dogs.


Changes, by David Given

Changes starts out with blood, and lots of it. Kind of apt for a story about colonisation, if you ask me.

You’re a space explorer on a planet full of telepathic energy, and you are occupying the body of a “rabbit” (so named by you and your fellow researchers). To survive, you have to kill larger animals and take their bodies to be engulfed in the cocoon of a magical Mother Tree, which allows you to occupy said body in turn. It is somewhat gruesome, and you are said to feel bad for doing it because you can empathise with the creatures you kill, but you have to do it anyway if you want to get back into your crash-landed spaceship and finish the game. And also, you know, not die.

The backstory, doled out in chunks as you succeed in occupying new bodies, reveals that you are part of one of two teams. Yours, the “exploration” team, hovers in space and collects data, and if you determine a planet is to be safe for colonisation, the “exploitation” team gets cryogenically unfrozen so they can go off and do exactly what their name suggests. Your AI-driven ship, the Concerto, frets to you about the unsettling amounts of alien energy on the new planet you’ve discovered (which you call Elysia) and you are cautioned from unfreezing the exploitation team too soon. However, detractors on the ship, who suspect the Concerto is attempting a bid for power and that you are the prime accomplice, start a mob, which you escape by taking the nearest shuttle to Elysia itself. You crash, a “rabbit” sees you, and you wind up in your current predicament.

By the end of the game, your actions lead you to basically decimate the planet, or at least the part of it you’re on; what was once a rich ecosystem is now a mostly-barren wasteland, as becomes apparent in room descriptions. As you complete the logical final step of the puzzle, that is to say, taking your own dead body into the Mother Tree so you can be reborn into it in turn, the tree goes “ah, screw it!” and just subsumes you into itself. Now, as the tree, you realise that you and the explorers and the exploiters and everyone are all part of an interconnected whole, and suddenly, you understand everyone and everything is clear and why can’t we all just get along?

So yes, we’ve basically got a Green Aesop on our hands. The thing Changes has going for it is that unlike, say, Avatar or Pocahontas, the story isn’t written to make us feel better about ourselves. You’re not a hero, and you don’t get to learn important life lessons from noble savages who then go on to revere you for all you’ve learned. Instead, you wreak destruction in the name of survival, making you no better than the so-called “exploiters” from whom you were trying to protect the planet in the first place. And then you die.

It’s a more accurate portrayal of how oppression works in our society than most. The world isn’t divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”; we are all complicit to some degree. Sure, we can try to mitigate our environmental impact, consume fewer animal products, and point out examples of racism, sexism, and other -isms in an attempt to live in a more egalitarian society. But we’re swimming upstream as we do so, and when push comes to shove and it’s a matter of individual survival, we will slip and let inertia take its course.

And, in the grand scheme of things, we really aren’t all that important as individuals. But it sure seems like we are at the time, doesn’t it?

Eurydice, by Anonymous

Eurydice is a very personal story about processing the death of a dear friend. I realise that calling this story “personal” is rather vacuous, since I can’t really imagine an impersonal story about the death of a dear friend, and I’m not sure I even want to. But anyway…

The nature of your relationship with Celine, the friend in question, is somewhat ambiguous. You might have been lovers. You definitely loved her in some fashion. You shared a circle of friends and housemates: an urban family of sorts. Today, as you gather to grieve her passing, you can’t really stand to say all that much to any of them. So, you leave the house, go for a walk, and wind up in a retelling of Orpheus in the Underworld.

There’s a certain familiarity I felt when it came to the awkward, stilted interactions with people inside the house. They remind me of people I know: people I don’t particularly like but have to interact with out of necessity due to mutual friends, people I do like but don’t know how to interact with in difficult situations such as these, people who share a sort of mutual understanding with me that doesn’t really require a lot of words to express. Beyond that, there’s an overwhelming sense of social claustrophobia and a need to go somewhere — anywhere — that’s quiet and away from everyone and everything. As one with cranky introvert tendencies, it’s a feeling I know altogether too well.

It is in the process of taking a long walk and getting lost in one’s own head — exactly the sort of thing I would do — that we get to the part that re-enacts the titular myth. We meet a ferryman. We get past a three-headed dog monster. We wind up in the underworld, represented by the hospital where Celine spent her final days. We make a deal with Hades and Persephone, represented by a doctor and an old woman respectively, to let us take Celine home.

We learn that Celine tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills, and that she didn’t initially succeed, winding up in the aforementioned hospital with amnesia. No wonder it’s how your mind represents hell; when you visited her, she was only a shell of her former self, not understanding the appeal of obscure storytelling card games you used to play together, and even forgetting all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Nooooo!) You reassured her, and yourself, that she’d get it all back. She never did come back, and she never will.

The four endings are supposed to represent different ways of dealing with grief. You can tell off the mythical characters and go back home to your friends. You can fail to rescue Celine from the underworld and come home feeling empty. You can, in what feels like the darkest ending of all, subsume yourself entirely into the myth, in a way that suggests you lost consciousness or perhaps even died in the real world. Finally, in what I think is supposed to be the best ending, you can catch a glimpse of Celine in a way that suggests she’s still with you in some way, even as you move on. It’s also meant to be the hardest ending, and, I guess, the hardest state to reach.

I myself haven’t had someone this close to me die young — and goodness, I really, really hope nothing so horrible happens to any of my friends anytime soon — so I feel ill-equipped to express how successful a depiction of grief this story is for me personally. But I certainly felt empathy, particularly for the self-conscious, almost glib awkwardness of it all, and now I find myself wondering if anything more I say will render me just as insufferable as the protagonist’s friends. So I figure I’ll just end here and leave it at that.

First Draft of the Revolution, by Emily Short

We’re in an alternate 18th century France with magic in it — in Emily Short’s already-established Lavori D’Aracne universe, to be precise, of which this is the first game I’ve played, so I’m coming into the universe cold — and here, we get to enter the minds of aristocratic noblefolk as they carefully and painstakingly craft letters to one another. There’s a woman exiled into the countryside by her husband; while she was raised in a convent, she lacks her husband’s magical ability and, consequently, other social graces that he would deem fit for the company of his family. The man has a bastard son of extraordinary talent living out in the countryside as well, who is looked after by a friar, whom his wife has befriended, perhaps inappropriately. The friar is suspicious of the magic-using class and talks of a peasant uprising; the French revolution is about to happen in this universe, too.

Here, magic is, of course, a metaphor for money, status, and privilege; this story could well be about our own regular, vanilla French revolution, or any other country’s revolution; goodness knows there have been so many of them. It could even be set in the modern day — I find myself imagining these letters being written by members of the Bluth family of Arrested Development, though that could be because that was what I’ve recently been watching on Netflix — as these class struggles clearly haven’t gone away, in spite of so many efforts to fight the system, so to speak. I say this as someone who wants a more egalitarian society, as my Twitter ranting about privilege and oppression would suggest, and when pressed, I will admit that things have, in the long run, gotten better. But we still do struggle.

And I, too, realise that I’m part of the privileged class in a lot of ways — I grew up economically fortunate and largely because of this, I’ve been able to benefit from a university education — so I’m, in essence, part of the problem. It’s exactly why I find myself relating to these noblefolk and their cold, calculated ways of communicating to one another. The careful crafting of messages to draw out just the right information without revealing too much of one’s own. It’s familiar, and yet I kind of dislike myself for it.

I often tell people I’m more comfortable communicating with them in writing than I am at just speaking to them. At least, when I can write, I can carefully revise and tweak my wording so that what I say conveys exactly the right thoughts I’m meaning to express. It’s better than just incoherently blurting out what’s on my mind and leaving a conversation with a sinking feeling that I didn’t express myself precisely or accurately enough. Or is it? I can get bogged down in the process of writing and rewriting, and sometimes, it’s just never enough. Sometimes, I have to hit “send” or else risk being stuck in an infinite loop of revisions. Sometimes, I just get blocked from writing altogether, paralysed with the fear of getting it wrong. It’s a wonder I’m even able to communicate with people at all.

The story ends the same way regardless of which options you choose. Our protagonists rescue the bastard child from the friar and his revolutionary ideals and attempt to integrate him into high society, somewhat unsuccessfully. There are hints that this family is eventually going to fall from grace, which feels oddly satisfying to me; I’ve always had more sympathy for the underdog team, and I guess that holds even if I haven’t technically been on said team. The fact that we can’t change this outcome feels significant. People in power fall, and new people come to take their place, and so it goes on and on forever. Eventually, we might hope for some sort of equilibrium, but as I’ve said, we’re far from there yet.

howling dogs, by Porpentine

If howling dogs could be said to be about something, it’s the feeling of being trapped and wanting to escape. You spend every day in an increasingly squalid little room doing nothing of consequence except temporarily escaping into virtual worlds. I’ve been in this state many times before, immersing myself in various fictions, sometimes interactive, to distract myself from the dull ache of everyday life. It’s never been a particularly pleasant state.

Don’t get me wrong. In the grand scheme of things, I feel rather fortunate in the personal freedom department and I realise I do quite well for myself. It’s not like I’ve ever actually been imprisoned for anything: I’ve never been in trouble with the law, never been ill enough to be hospitalised or institutionalised for any length of time. I’ve never even been in any kind of substantial debt. That said, as a person of colour, a person of gender, and a person of many unusual quirks, it’s hard not to feel trapped by society and its expectations of how people like me are supposed to behave.

Other reviewers of this game have pointed out that there’s a common running theme in the VR simulations of the struggles of women. As a feminist and often female-assigned human, I relate to these struggles, and yet in spite of it all, my relationship with womanhood itself often feels like an ill-fitting pair of pants. I have no idea to what extent it’s just me and to what extent it’s society being limiting; perhaps I just dislike being forced into a binary. At least men get to be neutral; if these were the struggles of men, they’d just be called struggles, wouldn’t they? We see the Hero’s Journey as universal and stories like these as special-interest. Constricting, indeed.

Oh, but there’s also constriction in privilege, given what it costs to maintain it. The scene with the empress illustrates this well: all that etiquette training you must go through, all so you can look fabulous during your inevitable death by assassination. Making so many big, important decisions that feel so distant from the people and creatures they actually affect, because you’ve been living a life so removed from it all, all this time. (Except for that one day a year when you get to wear a mask and join the common folk in a sleeping festival.)

And the other stories. Watching a woman kill her abusive, neglectful husband, regardless of whether you agree she should; you’re complicit no matter what. Playing a first-person coffin shooter, and being mockingly kicked out into a tea party if you object to the violence. (Heh.) Being asked to describe a garden, objectively. (Ugh, why is “objectivity” still a thing that matters to people?) Getting burned at the stake as Joan of Arc, and being called a saint after the fact. Historical gender defiers like Joan of Arc always make me wonder: would I have been as brave and certain to assert my identity if I’d lived in the distant past, or would I have wound up a housewife somewhere, not really knowing any other alternative, but always feeling a constant gnawing sense of dissatisfaction? Will my future counterparts living in a utopia where many more gender expressions are possible and commonplace feel similar pity for me in the present day?

Out of all the Best Story candidates, it’s howling dogs’s story that feels the most ambiguous, the most dreamlike and poetic. Like a dream, it invites the creation of meaning. We don’t get a coherent narrative to passively consume; we get to piece it together ourselves, and figure out what it means to us.

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