The Wyldkynd Project is Spring Thing ’14’s only Alan entry, by Robert DeFord. Spoilers follow.
The Wyldkynd Project opens with a pretty straightforward ‘you get to be James Bond without having to do any work for it’ premise, with some gumf about psionics and non-locality and us being the most gifted ever. As soon as your luxury helicopter drops you off on Mystery Science Island, however, things start to go all unicorns and fairies.
It shortly transpires that a jillionaire investor is setting up a way to get to an alternate Earth, Heartha, and wants to go and live there because Earth sucks so hard because of all the pollution, poverty and war that are in no way his fault. But one of his psionic employees went rogue and escaped to the magical fantasy land of Heartha, he doesn’t want any other humans in his universe, so you have to go and get her back. (The whole story is basically Van Fantasy: there are crystals and dragons and unicorns and fairies and mermaids and a hot chyk who’s transforming into a unicorn and cosmic laws of unity, balance and harmony.)
“Are you crazy!” you exclaim. “You want me to travel to another universe without a way to get back to Earth except your blithe assurance that I can figure out a way to return after I get there? And I’m supposed to talk some hostile, albeit attractive, woman into coming back with me?”
In The Wyldkynd Project, all women are generically super-hot. We have stewardess Janet (quite good looking and could easily pass for a movie star or a model), forest fairy Clio (Her three-inch tall, naked body is the epitome of the female form, with well shaped breasts, blond hair, and long shapely legs) and Adriana, the rogue psionic who leaves behind a trail of besotted suitors as she moves through Heartha. And the exception to the rule is Edena, four-hundred-pound matriarch of the pig people.
The plot and mechanics of Wyldkynd are a lot more purposeful and coherent than the author’s previous games. Play centres around small and straightforward puzzles of a traditional kind, with gated progression and a lot of collecting diary pages. Once you get to Heartha magic is introduced, though it’s not exactly a consistent magic system so much as a new set of verbs which may or may not be the solution to the puzzle you’re working on.
It’s very expostulation-heavy – almost everyone you meet is eager to give you more backstory or how-our-world-works exegesis, all in much the same voice-of-the-worldbuilder tone, and you spend a great deal more time reading or being told about stuff than you do doing or seeing stuff. It’s very definitely in that school of fantasy wherein the author is really super-enthusiastic about the world they’ve designed, but has a good deal more trouble figuring out a compelling story to tell within it – particularly since, vide Wynne-Jones, said story needs to cover as many points of the map as possible. Much as I lament the excessive influence of the Tolkien school of fantasy worldbuilding, this doesn’t have to be awful; but for it to hold my attention, you need something pretty ginchy.
And the backstory and world of this game suffer, I think, from a lack of focus; it’s aiming to create a sprawling fantasy world with a science-fantasy justification, a dozen races, a magic system, an ethics system that acts as concrete natural law, a physical-transformation effect, a mother-goddess, a system of crystals and also an unrelated system of alchemy, and a backstory about the guy who’s trying to access it and the romantic travails of his rogue employee who lived here for years. To explore every bit of that adequately you’d need a three-book sequence: if you try to give them all a turn in the spotlight in a short-story-length game, you end up not really getting into any of it. Wyldkynd is full of summaries and abstracts, to the point where characters end up describing their species in terms that seem more like Monstrous Manual entries rather than self-description – I think one character says something along the lines of ‘we have a complex and distinctive culture.’
Background information is good, sure, but we really don’t need to know about Marsh-Wiggles in the first book. Find the main things that really matter about your story, and give them space to grow.
What’s also missing from Wyldkynd is any great sense of conflict. Heartha’s natural laws make it a sort of hippy Garden of Eden in which balance is always restored and cruelty is difficult or impossible. It seems plausible, early on, that Adriana will form an antagonist, but when you catch up with her that turns out not to be the case. I also suspected that Wyldkynd himself might turn out to be a big bad – old super-rich guy seeks exclusive access to alternate Earth, how is this not going to turn into a horrible S.M. Stirling colonialism-apologist utopia – but as it turns out, he really needs to be there to form the complementary male principle to the Heartha-goddess’ female (because what elfland really needs is an injection of old rich white guy) and everyone is on board with this plan. Eventually, both Adriana and hero Nick Wayne end up staying in Heartha and transforming into fantasy critters.
So, it’s a big old dose of everything-is-groovy escapism; that’s not a bad thing per se, but it inevitably carries some problems with it. People’s own versions of escapist utopias are going to be pretty different, so not everyone will share in the warm fuzzies; unicorns and fairies are not high on my list of utopia prerequisites. And fuzzy utopias are difficult to tell stories about, unless they’re threatened. And there are enough things that bother me that I don’t really feel like playing along in this particular Arcadia.
There’s the slightly uncomfortable treatment of sex, for one. This is not, to be fair, a narrative in which men are the only serious agents and women are inert or wicked ; there are a number of women in active and powerful roles, Adriana is repeatedly stressed as smart and talented, and so on. But, well, pretty much the first thing that’s established about any female character is whether they’re beautiful or not – and, as previously mentioned, everyone is either a giant pig-woman or a lingerie model. And there’s a sort of – well, this is a story that really wants to concern itself heavily with matters sexual, but it shies away from actually involving the (rather AFGNCAAP-y) protagonist in anything more than jokey misfires of the SEDUCE spell. (Plus, y’know, there’s a SEDUCE spell, which seems rather an unsettling element in a magical balance-and-harmony world.) This odd dance – of wanting sex to be a big element of the world without ever really engaging with it – feels kind of adolescent and 50s-70s f/sf-ish, from the era when every book cover had to be LSD cheesecake regardless of how much sexytimes or surreality it actually contained:
Also, I really, really didn’t want to be doing this job for Wyldkynd. Wyldkynd is ‘widely considered the most successful investor of the 20th century’, is horrified at the violence, poverty and pollution of the Earth, and apparently doesn’t really see any causal connection. That’s not unbelievable per se, but it sure as hell doesn’t make him a guy that I really want to work for, let alone deify. For a game that does so much overexplaining, I’m not really sure what’s so special and necessary about Wyldkynd’s apotheosis – it felt a little bit like This Is The Story, Okay, Just Go With It. But to me it felt uncomfortably close to another iteration of the Nerd Rapture – the world is shitty and broken, so rather than trying to improve it, let’s dedicate massive resources towards letting a handful of super-rich people get away to something nicer. Woo.