Deirdra Kiai on Best Story

Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai created the IGF-nominated stop motion musical extravaganza, Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!” (XYZZY Award winner, Best Supplemental Materials), and is also responsible for The Play (XYZZY Award winner, Best Story), Impostor Syndrome, and Life Flashes By. They are currently in graduate school at UC Santa Cruz, where they are working on an intentionally awkward computer-assisted interactive theatre performance with audience participation.

The Best Story finalists were ColoraturaHorse Master, Solarium and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

Coloratura is a monster movie in which you play the monster. Well, a kind-hearted, empathetic monster with good intentions, but, well, a monster nevertheless.

You take the form of an aqueous, alien creature that communicates and manipulates the world in a synaesthesia of songs with corresponding colours and emotions. A crew of humans on a ship have captured you, and you, justifiably, want to be released and taken home, rather than prodded and examined in a lab. Sadly, your only ways of communicating with said humans are to commit such frightening acts as mind control, engine malfunction, and meat monster creation.

Of course, you don’t see it quite that way. Indeed, everything is described by your character in a flowery, peace-loving-hippie, “one with everything”, purple prose sort of language. Those dead hunks of meat in the freezer are so sad and you must sing them back to life! Those humans are so angry and panicked and you must calm them down!

I thought Coloratura did a great job of conveying moral relativism, portraying not a clear villain, but just a failure to communicate. I wanted to return home and not get captured, and yet I was genuinely scared for the humans. The part that made me feel most awful was killing the Captain, an action the game gave me no choice but to do; it was a “kill or be killed” kind of situation. This brave woman whose crew has been either decimated or brainwashed by this monster, and who feels all these impostor syndrome-y feelings of failure for not being able to capture it… yeah.

Also, props for the nearly-all-female cast — this game is a Bechdel Test-passer, for sure. The one distinguishably male character, the Drifter, was portrayed as completely hostile, which made me vaguely wonder whether there was a comment in here about masculinity, but then realised that this is exactly the kind of tokenised reductionism that happens when you, say, only have one woman character surrounded by a cast of dudes. In this case, having an ensemble cast of women, of different occupations and personalities, has the effect of making women look like people, while the one man in the story reads like a stereotype. I don’t know how much of this was intentional, but I found the effect quite illustrative.

Horse Master (Tom McHenry)

Horse Master is, ostensibly, a resource management sim about raising your horse so you can become, as the title says, a Horse Master. (Just like your father was.) Except in this universe, horses are these scary factory-produced creatures with carapaces, and horse masters all take performance-enhancing drugs just to be able to keep up with them.

When you start out, you’re doing the usual stat-management stuff that you would do in such a game, feeding, grooming and electrostimming your horse. About five days in, you happen upon a “cheat code” that increases all your daily stats optimally. I used the cheat code every day after that, of course, somewhat wary of what the game was going to do to me — if it’s that easy to max your stats, that can’t really be what the game is about, right?

And then, I got evicted from my apartment. And then got arrested for shoplifting for food one day before the Horse Master competition. (On further playthroughs, I was able to win and become a Horse Master, by doing such gruesome things as cutting off my pinky finger and severing my horse’s nerve disc. Victory?)

The whole thing feels to me like a Generation Y story (I don’t love the term “Generation Y”, but at least I hate it less than “millennials”) about grandiose hopes and dreams of Being Special™ and assurances that we will, without a doubt, “do better than our parents”, that come crashing apart upon dealing with the reality of today’s economy. Even the lucky ones of us who do relatively well do so at the expense of cutting out parts of our soul and resigning ourselves to enabling continued social inequality. Gruesome, indeed.

The part that felt most evocative to me was showing up to the Horse Master competition, all bedraggled and smelly from my days of homelessness, and being put up in a fancy hotel, raiding the mini-fridge for dexobrimadine. Being around all those other well-dressed people who were used to this sort of upper-class opulence made me feel like an interloper; winning the competition and joining their ranks made me feel empty and hollow.

The winning ending ends with the line, “Now you might even ask what kind of life you would have wanted, but it is too late to ever want again.” I don’t want that to be true; even in the unlikely event that I did become wealthy and famous, I want to believe I’d feel empowered to use my wealth and fame to make life better for everyone. But once you’re that far gone, you can’t anymore, not really. You come to believe that because you pulled yourself by your bootstraps and made it here, all those other homeless people just didn’t try hard enough! And so it goes, sadly.

Solarium (Alan DeNiro)

Solarium is a story about supernatural body-snatching beings created by a god that quickly tired of them and left. One of these beings is spending the ages wreaking destruction in an attempt to get their (its?) maker to notice it. Another of these beings is trying to stop its (their?) sibling. This is the character you play.

We start our story during the Cold War — or, rather, an alternate universe version thereof. The destructive being, called the Archon, has brainwashed half of the CIA’s secret Team D within Project Solarium and the President and caused the US to bomb the USSR, nuking half of Europe and resulting in the retaliatory bombing of major US and Canadian cities. The other half of Project Solarium consisted of you, living in the body of an Episcopalian priest named James, and Annalise, a professor with whom you have an adulterous love affair.

After the bombing, you and Annalise attempted to capture the Archon-controlled President, resulting in your death and resurrection into the body of a woman named Lenora, and your attempting to find Annalise, in turn, by operating an alchemy machine that she built. This serves as the story-gating mechanism for this game, where transmuting different elements has you reliving a memory of what brought you to this point.

It turns out that, after all the angsting about being in love with a human, you discover that Annalise is actually a supernatural being like you and the Archon, and she (it? they?) has been behind the scenes helping you contain the Archon all this time. Moreover, the alchemy machine is a machine intended to kill her off. You then have the choice of either dying with her or continuing to live on in heroic loneliness for many millenia.

Before I knew what was going on, I thought this was just going to be a story about the Cold War; there’s a lot of real-world, factual (and indeed, downright scary) detail about Project Solarium (which was a real thing, though “Team D” was fictional) and Project MKULTRA (at one point, you stop Annalise from getting secretly drugged with LSD), and the writing style itself is grounded in realism. Having the supernatural elements of the story reveal themselves as it unfolded kept the story from sounding as genre fiction-y as I outlined above, which I definitely think helped the narrative as a whole.

Overall, I found that, though Solarium was well-written, it read to me as the most conservative, and most old-school hypertext-like, of this year’s Best Story nominees. It’s more of a generational gap than anything else; I feel like it speaks less to me and more to people of a generation or two older than me. I was emotionally moved, sure, but only to the extent that I can be moved at all by a grand, world-saving, universalist narrative these days.

ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine)

At first, you might think ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III is just an over-the-top satire of old-school tycoon games, the capitalistically acquisitive nature of games as a medium, and of capitalism itself. And on that front, it certainly delivers. But then, it gradually pulls back the curtain to reveal that this is actually a personal story about playing games to escape an awful childhood. And then it becomes gut-punchingly heart-wrenching.

The shareware conceit of the game, illustrated by password-protected, gated areas which are opened using a code in a text file on Porpentine’s website, gives the game a real nineties sense of place. (I myself played a lot of shareware games as a kid, mainly because I wasn’t allowed to have a Nintendo.) This gets further underscored by interspersed text expressing childlike curiosity about mysterious adult concepts: you get excited about X-rated rumours of what’s in the shareware-blocked area, and are disappointed that all you can actually see are legs. It’s a familiar feeling, being that age and being too young to know everything that’s going on, both in the game itself and in real life.

In the middle of the game, your older sister appears, wanting to talk to you; it’s hinted that she’s about to run away. You can only respond brusquely, because you’re concentrating on earning a million dollars in the game and you didn’t want to be interrupted. Another familiar feeling. It was always so easy to get sucked in and not pay attention to anything else, even if it was important.

My parents didn’t argue like the ones in this game do — they’re still happily married after over 30 years — but I was bullied in school and took refuge in stories to escape. I fell in love with videogames because I could actually live and move in the worlds they contained. It’s no surprise that I wound up wanting to make them, too. I sometimes wonder who I might have become if I didn’t react to childhood oppression by escaping. Might I have developed better social skills — skills I’m only now, in my twenties, desperately trying to catch up on? Might I be better equipped to Win Friends and Influence People in a way I feel I have so much trouble doing now? Who knows. Games made me who I am, for better or worse.

The endgame is about Porpentine reuniting, in real life, with her younger sister, someone she thought she’d lost by running away. It’s beautiful. It made me think of what I’ve experienced as of late with members of my family, revealing truths about myself I always assumed they’d reject, and being surprised by their acceptance — or at least, their desire to understand. My story, like Porp’s, is still ongoing, but at least now there’s hope where before there was only escape.

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