Introcomp 2014 – The Hornet’s Nest

The Hornet’s Nest, by Jason Lautzenheiser, opens with an it-was-all-a-dream sequence. I have Strong Feelings about the use of dreams in fiction, which boil down to ‘unless you are a writer of magisterial brilliance, don’t.’ They’re worse yet as the opening to a game: when a game opens, you have a limited amount of space to win the reader’s interest. That space is precious. Unless dreams form a substantial element of the plot, It Was All A Dream is a fumble, a ‘no, wait, throw all that out, I’ll start again…’

What you wake up to is a screeching wife demanding that you do the chores. The protagonist is an unremarkably inept Middle American, who really just wants to sit and have a beer. This is a tired old comedy pairing, a story that’s been in decline since… come to think of it, since no-fault divorce. Back in the day, I suppose the reaction to this kind of story was to have a hearty ain’t-that-just-so chuckle, and maybe pity the feller his rough luck. Nowadays a more likely reaction is ‘shit, they plainly can’t stand one another; if they can’t fix it they need to break up, and if they don’t break up then something ugly is going on.’

The other thing is that the screeching, chore-demanding, fear-inspiring wife not just an old gag, it’s a sexist one. It’s a joke that serves solidarity of men against women (‘ha-ha, guys, the old woman’s always nagging, ain’t she’) and an admonishment to women (‘but you’re nothing like this… right?’). It’s a trope that comes from an attitude that the job of a wife is to make the home pleasant for the husband, that a woman who doesn’t defer to men or who stands up for her own interests is monstrous.

This is mostly a problem because the character isn’t really anything except a nagging shrew. She’s not really a character – just an off-the-shelf stereotype serving a convenient plot function. I don’t know whether the author set out to write a story about the awfulness of nagging wives, or if it was just a convenient motivation for the protagonist, but it doesn’t really matter. When you create a character who fits a stereotype in an uncomplicated way, you’re making an argument for the importance and reality of that stereotype, whether you mean to or not.

OK. Rant done.

This aims to be a slapstick ineptitude comedy in the vein of Gourmet or Fine-Tuned: you have to get rid of a hornet’s nest, going through series of ill-considered, physically dangerous blunders in the process. (This is the sort of game that, I suspect, that my former-EMT partner would refuse to play on grounds of life-imperiling stupidity. Alas, there is no CALL EXTERMINATOR command, nor are there any EpiPens in evidence.)

Comedy’s hard. (Text-based slapstick is harder.) If comedy fails to make you laugh, or at least smirk, it becomes boring or inane very quickly. Hornet’s Nest didn’t really do it for me; my guess is that this is because it was too safe, because it didn’t go anywhere unexpected. But it’s just a guess. It could be a matter of delivery, or it could be because the opening made me less willing to approach the game on its own terms.

I was able to figure out two puzzles (read: inept failures), but was kind of stumped thereafter; the game went from being fairly solicitous about its guidance, to complete silence. I wasn’t sure if this was the end of the intro, or if I needed to re-use stuff from a previous puzzle, or if I hadn’t got the smoke puzzle right yet – except that the failure of the smoke puzzle suggested that smoke wasn’t going to work at all.

Do I want to keep playing? Eh. The wife thing aside, I’m not hating this one, but it’s really only got one aim, and that aim doesn’t quite click for me, so there’s not very much to build my enthusiasm.

Great Evil: Minor. The game’s tested, but I’m unsure whether it has an ending or just runs out of material.

Little Evil: Well, there’s two sides to this. On one hand, it seems pretty clear what the game’s going to be about: we’re going to be fumbling about with puzzles, trying to deal with the hornets and failing again and again. On the other, I’m not convinced that this is a premise with very much more mileage left in it. (Well, I’m sure that Laurel and Hardy could have spun it out into a feature-length piece, but it’d take some brilliant comic chops to keep it entertaining.

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9 Responses to Introcomp 2014 – The Hornet’s Nest

  1. Hanon Ondricek says:

    Hey there. Just wanted to say that I was a beta tester for this and the original version had no clarification of what you were supposed to do or why. I feel it was my feedback that caused Jason to come up with a quick and easy motivation to explain the task. You kind of jumped to a “this is sexist” place, but I’d venture it would be a challenge to find any married couple where one or the other at some point found themselves repeatedly needing to remind their spouse about doing some chore to the point of frustration.

    • I’d venture it would be a challenge to find any married couple where one or the other at some point found themselves repeatedly needing to remind their spouse about doing some chore to the point of frustration.

      Sure. But the picture here is absolutely not one of a generally OK marriage that includes some frustrations.

      But that smell is one all too real. The perfume your wife wears every day, announcing her presence as she enters the bedroom you share.

      “Will you get out of bed!!!”, she screeches.

      “You promised you’d get rid of that hornets’ nest before my mother got here. You know she’s allergic.”

      You slowly roll out of bed, you had secretly hoped that perhaps your mother-in-law would get stung and never come back. But your fear of your wife is stronger than your desire to see her mother disappear.

      Getting up you manage to pull on your shorts and a t-shirt before she shoves you out the door.

      “Now don’t come back until it’s gone, “ she demands as she slams and locks the door behind you.

      Screeches, shoves, demands, slams, locks. Locks him out of the house until he performs a potentially life-threatening task that he isn’t really competent to perform. The husband recognises the scent of his wife with dread and fear. This isn’t the material of chuckle-worthy domestic comedy. This is a full-fledged abusive relationship.

      But it’s not treated as an abusive relationship: it’s treated as a stock light-comedy trope that we should all recognise and chuckle at. That’s sexist along two axes: one is that it assumes that it’s pretty normal for wives to be two-dimensional screeching harridans, and the other is that it assumes that abusive relationships are no big deal, that we should be chuckling at this guy’s comic misfortune rather than staging an intervention.

      • Hanon Ondricek says:

        Noted. It is a stock comedy trope. I expect your formative years did not include re-runs of The Flintstones, Married With Children, or even The Honeymooners, which did manage to give arcs and characterization to flummoxed housewives who might come off one-dimensional if you pluck one selected scene of them losing it with their husbands.

        My thought when reading the scene with the experience of American TV sitcoms was not sexism in the writing, but an eye roll and understanding that she likely already had asked him to do this and likely other tasks repeatedly in the past and had reached the end of her rope and the PC is the typical husband who interprets the wife’s anger as a character trait not motivated by his inaction. It could be written better perhaps, as all things, but both of the characters are established with stereotypical shortcuts to get the player into the babel-fish puzzle that is the game.

        I guess it could be likened to British panto and farce, or modern Commedia dell’arte with stock characters you recognize without needing to have their backstory explained. It’s fair to wish for better characterization and writing, but (IMHO) a bit far to call something out for sexism when no characters are deeply developed because the plot is primarily concerned with slamming doors and trousers-round-ankles.

      • I’m aware that it’s a stock comedy trope – the original review discusses it in those terms. That’s not an excuse: it’s a cause. Lots of tropes are sexist, because sexism is deeply ingrained into our culture. This is why it is very easy to do sexist things without any special malign intent. The whole point of the word ‘stereotype’ is that it’s about simplified preconceptions – that is, stereotypes are tropes used simply, without thinking about it.

        I agree that it’s possible to do things which draw on the trope but nonetheless involve a non-sexist treatment of nuanced, sympathetic characters. But that does not make the trope as a whole harmless. And if you don’t actually do a nuanced, sympathetic presentation, you don’t get any credit for it.

        Most sexism isn’t the result of some dude getting up, stretching and thinking, ‘how shall I express my contempt of women today.’ Most of it is the result of people carrying on as normal, uncritically relying on tropes.

    • (It’s pretty easy to make last-minute additions which are only intended to serve a very specific purpose, but which end up making your game waaaay creepier or darker than you really intended. The conclusion to Violet is another example.)

      • Hanon Ondricek says:

        While I don’t at all doubt we could both come up with examples of literature that are egregiously sexist and do a considerably more extensive job of demeaning women than Hornet’s Nest does, do you also feel that most readers are incapable of understanding that an individual fictional character’s worldview and perspective does not necessarily by default reflect those of the author?

      • The important question is not ‘in their heart of hearts, is the author sexist?’ The question is ‘does the game do sexist things?’ One does not necessitate the other.

        Works that do sexist things are not excused because of the possibility that the author may be well-meaning. If your dog habitually shits on your neighbour’s lawn, the right response is not to say ‘well, that’s not really a problem, because I didn’t train the dog to shit on the lawn, and it’s pretty normal to own dogs and for dogs to shit on lawns, and I don’t mean my neighbour any harm.’ The right response is to apologise, clean up the shit, and make an effort to control your dog in future.

        Obviously, the person who does train their dog to shit on the neighbour’s lawn is a much worse person. But that doesn’t make ‘I didn’t train my dog to do this’ a sufficient response.

  2. Hanon Ondricek says:

    A dog is not a human. The world is a giant expanse of grass to a dog.

    Do you really think that EVERY reader is completely manipulated by the prose they read to the extent that they are incapable of identifying a trope or a stereotype, and incapable of deciding who the “bad guy” is, and that they are brainwashed and without capacity to read a character whose values oppose their own?

    That kind of eliminates irony as a literary tool. “A Modest Proposal” be damned.

    Remember that you’ve only read the introduction to this story. Who knows what the wife could do that might turn your opinion? She could valiantly rush in and save the PC with an epi pen and he might reminisce and remember the good times with his wife and how she did extensive medical work In Sri Lanka growing crops for diseased orphans while on vacation from her NASA work to provide the well rounded character background you are missing in the intro.

    I do not believe the author deserves to be treated the way you would train a dog.

    • 1) You’re misreading the metaphor. The author is not the dog. The author is the dog’s owner. The dog is the game. Like a dog’s behaviour, a game is only partly the product of the author’s conscious decisions: the rest is accident or heritage. But the dog’s owner is still responsible for the stuff the dog does.

      2) I agree that a trope can be employed ironically or subversively. I see zero evidence that anything like that is intended here; there is nothing to suggest that the narrator’s point of view is unreliable. As you said earlier, it’s used (very simply, off the shelf) as a motive force for the character; it is never examined, undermined or complicated. It’s utterly ridiculous to say that a stereotype is OK just so long as everybody knows it’s a stereotype.

      3) If a game is released as an intro in a competition for intros, it’s appropriate to judge it according to what it actually shows in the intro, rather than a best-case scenario of how it might turn out. If you’re going to write a game which uses stereotypes in the first half and then subverts them in the second, it is probably a bad idea to enter it in Introcomp.

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