Introcomp 2014: The Terrible Doubt of Appearances

The Terrible Doubt of Appearances, by Buster Hudson, is a Victorian-flavoured down-the-rabbit-hole children’s fantasy. Sort of. Henry, a rather sheltered adolescent, is drawn by a fairy into a rather bleak-seeming wonderland, for reasons.

The style is somewhat prolix, and the gameplay is very much in the Photopia mould, always giving you a single Next Thing to do and giving you very heavy suggestions about how to do it. (The hint-offering NPC starts offering hints after the very first turn.)

Pseudo-Victorian style is a harsh mistress. It’s very easy to end up with the stylistic equivalent of a shitload of cogs and watches on your boot, and details that ramble crazily from Jane Austen to C.S. Lewis; even if you’re not aiming to remain strictly faithful to a particular period, you can still mess up by being over-frilly or over-modern. As a reader I am kind of terrible about this. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I’ll say, paging through a perfectly good escapist romp, ‘Queen Victoria would never have suggested the heroine marrying that werewolf so quickly – when was there time to read the banns? And everybody’s dialogue feels as though the author has read more steampunk fiction than actual Victorian authors.’ I acknowledge that not every writer can be Connie Willis; a mere 90% would suffice.

You have a sudden thought she might be after a bit of ransom.

There are certain idioms that Americans a) identify strongly as being typical of British English but b) almost always get slightly, nails-down-a-blackboard wrong. ‘Quite’ and ‘a bit’ are among the leading contenders. (The protagonist isn’t British – but ‘posh Victorian Northeasterner’ is apparently close enough.)

At the same time, I am a huge fan of self-consciously overembellished language; I can put up with the inherent racism of Ernest Bramah’s Kai Lung books for the sake of his gloriously excessive circumlocutions. It’s a delicate art, though; being funny is hard. And in a game, where there are strong reasons to keep your prose tight and to the point, froofy writing needs to do a lot to justify itself. This is… close, but not quite there. Together with the polish and the active hinting, the effect is (I’m not sure how to put this more helpfully) a bit like trying to get out of a too-soft bed.

Wonderlands are also tricky writing prospects, too. Conveying a sense of astonishment is difficult to get right, the prose equivalent of a reaction shot: easy to overdo and render cheesy and transparently manipulative, easy to undersell and make your viewpoint character seem wooden or blasé. Terrible Doubt generally undersells emotion, which in theory is the better side to err upon – particularly if your narrative voice is an understated Victorian. But I think it ends up being a little too inexpressive; here’s one example.

> continue
Without warning, a human-like arm bursts from the ground! You are startled. Then confused. Then curious. It looks to be made of rubber, bending in directions arms don’t usually bend. Its hand snatches at the air. What sort of creature is this?

This should work as a horror moment: shocking, then creepily fascinating. As is often the case with horror, it’s inherently a bit ridiculous – rubbery arms? what kind of sideshow house-of-horrors is this? so the right mood is critical to making it work. It’s missing something, though. There are strikingly few adjectives: the adjectival elements ‘human-like’ and ‘looks to be made of rubber’ both have a flavour of detached observation rather than gut reaction. The protagonist’s reactions are plainly listed in sequence, as if taking the same detached approach in observing himself. Similarly, his reaction to the revelation of fantasy elements is mostly indifference, yet he is appalled at being exposed to dirt:

It is a tiresome walk. Uphill, no less. The rocks are large and abundant, and you even have to put your hands on their dusty surfaces several times to lift yourself over them.

We’re talking about an adolescent (‘No longer a boy, not yet a man’)
but this is the kind of self-conscious affectation of indolence you’d expect of a jaded Wildean. The protagonist, Henry, is not an appealing character: he has the vanity, detachment and affectations of said Wildean combined with the focused venality of a small boy, fixated on parental approval and purloined lemon squares. This is meant as comedy, but it didn’t quite work for me. I couldn’t quite make sense of him as a flesh-and-blood character; things I could have laughed at in an adult character are more vexing in a child; I’m not sure whether to approach him as I would Primo Varicella or the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu. Is this meant as a psychological-discovery journey? A story about the selfish child who Learns Better? Or just as a story with an amusingly unpleasant protagonist?

The upshot of this is that I didn’t actually get engaged with the A-plot too much – there’s a glowy artifact that allows you to grant wishes, but there’s some sinister shadowing around the motives of the wonderlandites – because I was trying to puzzle out what the deal was with the characters.

Do I want to continue playing? Yes, but in large part it’s to satisfy my curiosity about what’s meant to be going on here.

Great Evil: This feels very polished. It has credited testers and a bristling array of polish-type extensions; the implementation level is thorough, with a lot of custom responses and anticipations of player behaviour. This is an author who has a solid grasp of the technical side of things, and if a little work is needed on nailing the writery stuff, there’s certainly material to work with.

Little Evil: So where’s the story going? There are some hooks emerging which might be evidence of some coherent worldbuilding or central mechanical threads – humans can gather shiny things which enable them to grant wishes, the ruined-doll’s-house imagery suggests some creepy antagonist about to manifest – but Henry seems to have little objective of his own, and the other characters aren’t forthcoming about their own purposes.

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