Following Me (Tia Orisney) is a choice-based game. It’s a serial-killer piece that involves abduction and associated creepiness, so trigger-warnings ahoy.
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.)
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You mentioned that the sisters ended up “killing the abductors”, so I wanted to say that they don’t have to. In my playthrough the abductors lived, and I felt good about that, like I hadn’t sunk to their level.
My experience of this choice point was pretty weird and meta, and as far as I can reconstruct it went something like this:
I don’t have to kill this guy. My character wouldn’t want to kill this guy if she didn’t have to. On the other hand, it’s risky not to kill him. We’re in danger, and so are any of his future possible victims.
Of course, I get the impression that the game will let me survive not killing him. The game is heavy-handedly setting this up as a defining moral choice, and therefore there’s probably at least an interesting ending for not killing him.
But as a character within the story, I wouldn’t know that. I’d just be scared for my life, and for the life of my sister. The need to protect a vulnerable family member is enough to get me to do some things that I otherwise might not feel able to do.
On the other other hand, if it were really me in this situation, I’d be extremely hesitant to actually take a life no matter what the circumstances.
But this guy is a game character. And as the player, I have more of a stake in the protagonist surviving than in the protagonist not feeling guilty afterwards.
Ah, kill him.
…so in the end the decision involved a moral calculation that explicitly included some information about being in a game (“this guy is not real”, “my goals for the protagonist may differ from her own goals”) but excluded other information (“the game situation is probably designed to make non-violence a viable solution”). Cognitive dissonance wins!
I am not sure how I would have felt if the narrative up to that point had been more invested in the protagonist’s morality/non-violence and less invested in the protagonist’s survival.
My thinking was much simpler, along the lines that this character didn’t want to kill the guy. Her sister did, that was clear, but she herself didn’t. I felt like I didn’t want to make her do things she strongly didn’t want to do. Partly, I felt like this would drag me out of the story and into a meta-gaming mindset (“we need to do this or we’ll lose the game”), and I didn’t want that. Partly I trusted the writer and I felt like I was getting clues, “this is the right way to play”.
Afterwards I justified it more, by remembering that she was a medical student and had an oath to help people and not kill them, and also by realizing that this choice gave her/me/us the moral high ground and I got to feel superior to the badguys.
It was an interesting choice and resonated with me, so much that I felt compelled to leave the comment here.