Emma Joyce on Best Story 2012

Emma Joyce writes on Changes, Eurydice, First Draft of the Revolution and howling dogs.

Changes, by David Given

Changes is, I must admit, not a game that leaps to mind for me when thinking of IF with outstanding stories. Not because the story is bad, but because the most memorable aspect of the game for me was the setting. It’s a living, breathing, impressively implemented world full of animals pursuing their own goals and interacting with each other independently of the protagonist–something which is exceedingly rare for people to even attempt in IF, let alone to carry off this well.

Compared to the carefully-rendered ecosystem and the challenging (perhaps too challenging) puzzles that revolve around it, the plot takes a bit of a backseat. It’s doled out in chunks in flashback form whenever one of the major puzzles is completed, which means that if you take a long time to figure out the puzzles (which seems to be the case for many, if not most, players), story progression seems awfully slow. In between each bit of backstory, you might spend half an hour being chased in circles by a fox, or being a fox chasing deer in circles, or what have you, with not much happening on the plot front at all, and it sort of loses its momentum. This makes it hard to get invested in the larger ecological-SF plot, to really care about the politics that led to the protagonist being stabbed in the back by his fellow explorers. In addition, I felt the game could have been a little more thorough in its explorations of the moral dilemmas inherent in the colonize the planet/leave it alone debate and in the protagonist’s going around killing semi-intelligent beings to whom he is telepathically linked (and most of whom are just minding their own business and not trying to hurt him, the fox aside). Both of these are nodded to, but more or less glossed over, and with the former especially, it might have been nice to get more of a sense of what led the antagonists to be so desperate as to be willing to assassinate the most prominent proponent of not colonizing Elysia.

That’s not to say the story is terrible; there are a lot of nice touches in it too. The sympathetic and helpful but decidedly non-human ship’s AI is a refreshing take on the concept, and the crew’s distrust of the AI was one of the more intriguing aspects of the intra-ship politics, for me. Somewhere in the “Frankenstein laws” governing how much the AI is allowed to do without human input and the fact that these laws contribute in no small measure to the protagonist’s predicament, it feels like there’s a subtle criticism of the much-used “and then the creation turned on its masters!” narrative. It’s interesting to see that kind of quiet subversion of one of the oldest SF narratives in existence (after all, it goes back to… well, Frankenstein). It’s also interesting to note that the protagonist seems to have more emotional connection with the ship’s AI and his shuttle than with his fellow humans, though I don’t know if this was intended.

The little asides about the naming of the Elysian animals were also entertaining, particularly the squabble over what to call the rabbits. The occasional reminders that these animals are not exactly what we would think of as rabbits, foxes, otters, beavers, deer, or lemurs gave the world a nice alien touch–though the differences ultimately seemed mostly cosmetic.

There were, then, aspects of the story that were enjoyable, but these aspects tended to be background details rather than the main plot arc, and the main plot arc was not quite compelling enough to offset the frustration of the puzzles or to stand out compared to the vibrancy of the setting. This is not to insult Changes; it is in many ways a unique and well-crafted game which is deserving of recognition. I’m just not sure Story is the category in which this recognition is most deserved.

Eurydice, by Anonymous

Writing a retelling of an ancient myth, especially one as widely known as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, may seem on the surface like an easy route for a storyteller to take. After all, it gives you a certain framework to follow for the plot and the characters. Furthermore, you can rely on the audience to have a knowledge of the shape of the story you’re trying to tell to a much greater extent than is usually the case. You don’t, for example, have to directly tell the player “this is Hades, King of the Underworld, and this is his queen Persephone, and this is the way their relationship works due to this aspect of their backstory.” You can just put in a character who evokes Hades and a character who evokes Persephone, without ever naming them, and the player’s existing knowledge of the story will do the rest. This applies to thematic elements as well–the title Eurydice alone should give the reader some idea of the ground that will be covered here.

This knowledge on the part of the player is, however, a double-edged sword: they already know how the story goes, so the writer must work that much harder to keep their attention, to convince them that there is something here that they haven’t seen before. Fortunately, Eurydice puts in that necessary effort. Yes, the plot hits most of the expected notes–the loss of a loved one and the journey to the underworld to get her back, dealing with a ferryman and a three-headed dog and an authority figure whom the protagonist must convince to give up the spirit of the dead loved one–but underneath the mythological trappings is a real, raw, meticulously-observed portrait of grief that keeps the game feeling grounded even when the narrative is at its most fantastical. The underworld in this case takes the form of the mental hospital in which the deceased loved one, Celine, seems to have spent the end of her life, and as the protagonist journeys through it in search of her, memories of her arise. The underworld-hospital is full of small details which build up a very human portrait of both the protagonist and Celine–but which also create a general sense of helplessness. The protagonist plays Celine’s favorite card game with her, buys her a radio and a houseplant for her room, promises to rewatch a forgotten television show with her; Celine gamely goes along with all this, but it’s clear to the protagonist and the player alike that her heart’s not in it, that none of this is really helping at all. These scenes do an excellent job of getting the player on board with the protagonist’s drive to save Celine. The sympathy for the protagonist and Celine and the desire to do something to make things better for Celine draw the player on even though we all know what’s coming.

Or do we? The game has four endings, each of which provides a different conclusion to the emotional arc of the story, and here is where the game begins to subvert the player’s expectations. If you follow the myth to the letter, playing the lyre at every opportunity and turning around as soon as the game suggests that Celine might not in fact be following you, you’re likely to get the accurately-named Failure ending, the least satisfying of the four. In this ending, the protagonist simply gives up and goes home, having failed to confront their feelings or come to terms with anything–the whole journey has been utterly pointless. The stated reason for these actions leading to this ending is that playing the lyre signifies seeking an easy, “magical” solution to real problems that can’t be fixed that way, but in a way it may also reflect the player’s refusal to engage with this specific iteration of the story, going through the mythological motions without really thinking about what it all means for these particular characters.

What if you play the lyre and then don’t turn around? Well, then you’ve really lost touch with reality: this earns you the slightly puzzling Fable ending, in which the protagonist seems to lose the ability to distinguish between their own life and the Orpheus myth altogether and descend into delusion out of unwillingness to deal with the fact of Celine’s death. This ending is at least somewhat more interesting than Failure, but it’s not terribly hopeful. The player is still relying on their knowledge of the myth here, although they are at least trying to change its outcome.

More satisfying are the Flowers and Friendship endings, which show the protagonist remembering the good times with Celine but accepting that she really is gone and beginning to think about moving on, possibly through renewing connections with their still-living friends. These endings require the player to find alternate solutions to dealing with the underworld’s various obstacles, using everyday objects from the protagonist’s house rather than a magical lyre that appears out of nowhere and may not be real. The idea, according to the writer, was to reward the player for finding more practical, real-world solutions to problems, though unfortunately this does not work out quite as well as might be hoped: the alternate solutions are still very adventure-gamey. It’s a different kind of unrealistic, but it’s unrealistic nonetheless. That said, this still rewards the player for engaging with the specifics of this story rather than following a pattern they think they already know. Even if the execution isn’t perfect, the decision to have breaking from the established story lead to more interesting and satisfying results than following it is an interesting one which makes the story aspect of the game more compelling.

All in all, despite a few missteps, Eurydice is a very solid take on the Orpheus & Eurydice myth, with a deft personal touch and some interesting ideas behind its multiple endings. It is well worth playing, and certainly deserves the recognition it has gotten as one of the stand-out games of the past year.

First Draft of the Revolution, by Emily Short

It’s not all that common to see alternate-universe or secondary-world fantasy stories that deal primarily with small-scale personal dramas. Plots centered around a woman dealing with a troubled marriage and learning to stand up for herself are not very often found in worlds that also have tensions between magic-using aristocrats and generally non-magical commoners about to erupt into revolution. First Draft, however, combines these elements very deftly. The family drama is interwoven with the larger political goings-on of the setting in a way that feels believable. Rather than trying to tell a sweeping story about the whole of society, it focuses on one incident in a way that hints at the underlying broader issues: the protagonist, Juliette, is the low-born, non-magical wife of a magic-using nobleman, and one of her husband’s youthful by-blows has just turned up in the company of a charismatic friar with heretical ideas about the magic-using class’s supposed God-given right to dominate everyone else. Juliette is drawn to the friar, but he, it transpires, has ulterior motives for getting close to her. In recounting Juliette’s interactions with the friar and the boy, the game never goes into any depth about what kind of movement or organization the friar might be involved with, why exactly they might want to assassinate Juliette’s husband, and what their larger plans are, but it’s clear that the friar is not some lone maniac; there’s some unrest here that goes far beyond that.

Juliette’s story has a climax and a resolution: she decides of her own accord to get her husband’s illegitimate child away from the radical friar by forging a letter the boy from her husband, and then writes her husband to tell him what she’s done, and what she expects him to do now, in terms that brook no argument. It’s satisfying to see a character who at the beginning seemed to feel powerless to do anything about her own situation find the courage to take that kind of risk to protect her family, standing up to her somewhat domineering husband in the process. It adds a positive note to the ending, which is otherwise rather ominous (for Juliette and her family, at any rate): the boy seems to still have radical sympathies, and the friar has gotten away to continue fomenting revolution elsewhere.

The political situation, on the other hand, never really comes to a head, but having it loom threateningly in the background works well, and was probably the best decision for a story of this length. The story builds a convincing sense of inevitability, so that even though the setting is fictional, it has the feel of one of those stories set on the eve of a world-changing historical event, like World War I or, well, the actual French Revolution. One gets the impression that the revolution will happen sooner or later; it’s just a question of when.

The story’s epistolary format works well for it, and its handling of the climax. These can be tricky to do in epistolary works, since the constraints of the form usually demand that any big decisive action must take place “offscreen” and be reported after the fact in a way that can feel anticlimactic. First Draft neatly sidesteps this by having Juliette’s decisive action be the actual act of letter-writing. The game’s “editing” mechanic, which gives the impression of the player peering over her shoulder as she writes, adds to the effectiveness as well.

It’s a short and linear game, but in twenty-odd short pages it accomplishes a lot, and the gameplay mechanic and epistolary format both serve the story–the unique format never feels like a gimmick. It’s a well-crafted thing, and my only real complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

howling dogs, by Porpentine

howling dogs is an interesting choice for Best Story, because at first glance it doesn’t precisely have a story. Not a single story, at any rate. Rather, it has several disparate narratives contained in a fairly loosely sketched frame.

The frame concerns a person trapped in a cell of some sort experiences the other stories as virtual reality scenarios while their (her?) real-life surroundings slowly decay. For company, the protagonist has only the photo of a woman–a former lover, perhaps–who becomes harder to remember with each passing day. Besides the gradual deterioration of the cell and the protagonist’s memories, not much happens in this layer of the story–which is probably the point.

The VR-scenario stories start short and simple and get longer and more involved as they go. The first, in which the player must choose to describe a garden from one of several different perspectives, is almost more the kind of thought-experiment you’d expect to find in a philosophy text than it is a narrative. Then there’s a memorably chilling piece in which a woman decides to kill her romantic partner (having been driven to the act by an incident a year before which is never specified) which takes an interesting approach to the question of player complicity. The narrator in this section is an “I”, not a “you”, and while the player may choose to condone her actions or not, she’ll carry out her plan regardless. The next is an especially odd piece involving a soldier involved in a surreal battle who may reject this reality in favor of an equally surreal peaceful teatime; after that is a well-written if somewhat standard take on the trial of Joan of Arc (or someone very like her).

The stand-out, though, is definitely the last and longest one, the tale of an empress who has been trained all her life to eventually die in an aesthetically pleasing manner. This story manages to fit a lot of worldbuilding into a small space gracefully enough that it doesn’t feel forced or confusing, and the world it paints is fascinating. It is a world of living cities that grow like plants and plains full of buried gods and bone-footed empresses who seem to wield supreme power but ultimately do not own their lives or their deaths. We follow one of these empresses through her youthful lessons in how to be beautiful in the face of her inevitable assassination. We see her come into her power and decide how to deal with several situations that require her attention. Then we are transported to the eve of the assassination–which, as it turns out, is not quite so inevitable as one might think, as long as the player is paying attention. If you play your cards (or click your links) right, the empress can decide to go against the fate that has been determined for her since birth and fight back against her would-be assassin. It’s a storyline that’s exciting on a surface level, but also laden with all kinds of deeper resonances regarding women and power and appearance and societal expectations, and the execution is fantastic on both (all?) levels.

The empress story is also the only one to explicitly relate back to the main storyline, as towards the end (in the “good” ending) the lines separating the VR scenario from the frame story’s reality begin to blur; the empress is identified with the frame story’s PC, and the woman who aids her in escaping assassination is identified with the woman in the photograph. The empress’s escape becomes the protagonist’s escape.

So the parallels in these two stories are made fairly explicit, but what about the rest? Do they hang together, or is howling dogs really as fragmentary as it first appears? Well, some of them are a little harder to figure out than others (I’m still not sure quite what’s going on with the battle/teatime episode), but there are strong thematic connections running through all the disparate parts of the piece. Gender and the position of women in society is one of the most explicit concerns of the piece, clearly visible in the stories of the empress, Joan of Arc, and the woman who kills her partner. In addition, there are themes of figurative and literal confinement present to some extent in nearly all of the stories (including the frame, but excluding the bit about the garden), appearances versus reality (which is inherent in the entire concept of VR as well as appearing in many of the sub-stories), death and decay, and probably many other things I haven’t noticed yet. For all that it’s short, it’s a dense piece of work, the kind that offers up new discoveries each time you go through it.

The individual parts of howling dogs are fascinating and they come together into a cohesive whole better than one might expect. The game may lack an overarching plot in the traditional sense, but it still feels like it’s telling a single story through different lenses. The fact that its approach to story is unusual for IF only makes this layered and thought-provoking work that much more memorable.

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