Two sisters, Aria and Kat, are hiking in the woods; after encountering a dead body, they’re approached and abducted by a creepy father-and-son duo and have to fight for escape. There is a good deal of fleeing through the snow, derelict buildings and concrete basements; we are in a fairly specific subgenre of horror thriller.
In the many parts of the IF world there’s a strong tradition that best practice is to avoid long passages of text between player input. Players are not engaged in the same kind of activity as readers of static text: if presented with a giant mass of information, they are likely to glaze over, skim, or not retain everything. In particular, if there’s crucial information that you want a reader to hang on to, you shouldn’t bury it in the middle of a monster paragraph. As a reader, I’m happy to chew my way through entire novels in an evening; as a consumer of interactive fiction, I groan when presented with a solid screenful of text.
We have a concept for this: the wall of text or the textdump. Like Orisney’s entries in last year’s Comp, Following Me is coming from an entirely different set of assumptions, largely treating the interactive element as a gloss on a short story; it’s not uncommon for there to be 1000 words or so between choices, and while the choices are generally presented as weighty, they’re mostly minor variations on a linear central plot. It’s formatted in a way that might make sense on a paper page or even an e-reader, but is eye-achingly dense on a monitor.
Following Me gives the impression of having been written at a gallop, without edits or rewrites. The style is a conversational inner monologue, with a thoughtstreamy tendency towards rambly tangents. There are a substantial number of punctuation/grammar errors of the sort that basic proofreading should catch.
Perhaps because of the rambly style, the plot-logic didn’t always quite seem to plug together clearly. Quite often people would do things for no very clear reason that I could figure out, or the impetus of a scene would shift somehow, or my sense of the physical state of the action would get muddled up. This sense carried over into the interaction: you make choices which feel hugely significant – do I keep the gun myself, or hand it over to my sister? – which didn’t always seem to be acknowledged in later text. At one point, after escaping the creepy murder house, you’re being pursued through the woods on foot; and then after you’re caught you’re driven back to the murder house in a car, and I couldn’t figure out at which point in the action the car had been driven round. (It is possible that this information does appear in the text, but that I didn’t retain it.) Many of the scenes feel as if they drag on for a beat or two longer than drama requires.
It to some degree captures a sense of the internal darkness and confusion of the protagonist’s situation; there is rarely, if ever, an obviously-signaled Good Choice. In part, I suspect, this is because the story is highly convergent – most of the choices are going to end up leaving you in a very similar situation regardless – but it does do a good job of evoking the PC’s uncertainty.
The focus character is, overwhelmingly, Kat: to a great extent Aria and the abductors are bit-players, and the story is really most interested in the inner world of a single character and her reactiosn to a scary situation. Apart from being unfocused and tangential, her voice is that of someone who’s tough but conscious of being out of their depth, who is exasperated as often as she’s scared: I picked up an Anita Blake book recently, and this has kind of a similar vibe.
The serial-killer duo are just a couple of sketchy dudes, not particularly good at what they’re doing. Unlike a lot of serial-killer fiction, the story doesn’t linger on their outlandish psychologies or macabre techniques, or their ominous, super-competent influence. The off-putting thing about this approach, very often, is that it’s fascinated with the killer, with the victims largely going uncharacterised until they show up as artfully-arranged cadavers. This is not a piece that aims to mythologise serial killers, particularly not as demigod geniuses inherently more powerful than their victims: the ones here posture menacingly, but don’t really seem to have a full-fledged plan, and cope poorly when things get unexpected. (The sisters end up self-rescuing, killing the abductors.) The scariness here is the scariness of flaily, messy incompetence, not cold, assured power.
I also got the strong sense that, while the piece was very interested in representing the menace of the situation, it was really not interested in actually going into the torture-porn territory despite relying on the threat of it. There’s a good deal of implied sexual threat, for instance, but it never becomes explicit. Which, on one level, is good – I don’t really want to see that – but, on the other, defused the menace rather. Some of this has to do with the pacing, I think; if you threaten Awful Things for a little too long, it starts to become a paper tiger.
The biggest factor, honestly, it that this is could be straightforwardly and substantially improved with proof-reading, layout choices and editing for clarity and length. At the moment, those issues dominate the experience; and because there’s relatively low focus on player action, they matter a good deal more.
Score: 3 or 4
(The 3-4 range is often pretty well-populated, so I tend to go back later and re-sort scores a little bit according to how strong the field is.)