IF Comp 2014: Raik

raikRaik (Harry Giles) is a choice-based Twine piece about anxiety, cave-crawls and Scots.

This is a simultaeneous-realities piece, in which action in a fantasy world tracks action in a more realistic one. Simultaeneous realities are a familiar trope and have plenty of IF precedent, but the specific hook here is that the heroic-fantasy world is rendered in standard English, while the depressing realist one is in broad Scots.

Scots, depending on who you listen to (and whether you consider this a meaningful distinction), is either a broad dialect of English or a mutually intelligible language with a common descent from Middle English and a great deal of borrowing. I find reading broad Scots about as straightforward as reading untranslated Chaucer: easy to get the gist, easier if I sound it out, but some vocabulary remains opaque. (I am generally very fond of prose in strong dialect; I know some readers who find it a chore, or simply impossible.)

For the hard-of-Scotting, the game links to a dictionary. Here’s the title:

raik [rek]
n. A journey, a long or tiring walk. A journey, especially one to or fro over a fixed route for a specified purpose. As much as can be carried in one load. A stretch of river used for salmon-fishing.

v. To move with speed, to cover the ground quickly. To journey, to go, to walk, stroll, to go in an aimless desultory way, to gad about, rove. To range over, to wander through. To work energetically and speedily, to plough through a task.

So, in-context I think that it’s safe to translate it as quest; the end-notes specifically discuss the influence of Depression Quest. (It probably shares a root with the English noun rake, as in a disreputable and dissolute person.)

The fantasy version of the protagonist is an over-the-top Highland Warrior type: kilt, long flame-red hair, mighty sword passed down the family line, eats lots of oats. The escapist fantasy is not just a fantasy of power and independence, but of unproblematic identity: this character seems an epitome of rugged Scottish authenticity, liable to smite any soy-milk-drinker with a haggis. But there’s an uncertain sense of backstory. The hero’s going after the Staff of Salmon – which feels like a Salmon of Knowledge thing, an appropriate goal for a Gaelic quest. But the thing here is that the heroic Scots fantasy is the part rendered in standard English. The full-on tropey Celtic Hero should speak Gaelic, surely, but the one point at which the hero speaks Gaelic (‘Riata’, read from ancient runes) it causes them agonising internal pain. Standard English is the language of the overculture, of computer games, of stock genre fantasy*.

The other thing is that Scots is, for most readers, slower and more difficult to read. There’s a sense that it’s not entirely easy for the protagonist, either, that the more difficult language reflects a more difficult reality. It’s ambiguous how much this is about the difficulty of acting (speaking or writing a second language, even your own, reflects the difficulty of dealing with the world when impaired by mental illness) and how much about being understood (mental illness is understood less widely and less well than are the conventions of heroic fantasy).

Initially, the transitions between Scots realism and English fantasy are voluntary, signaled by prominent red links at the bottom of the page; as things become more stressful and uncontrolled in either narrative, the game makes involuntary switches. As the game approaches its ending, you cannot really control which reality you inhabit, which ending you’ll get.

(A third-culture kid – childhood as an expat, adolescence as a poorly-reintegrated non-local, adulthood as an expat again – I’m a sucker for this kind of material, these themes of complicated connection to one’s own culture.)

If you strip out the game’s central hook, the individual halves are not super-exciting. The naturalistic story is a bland but unremarkable tale of quiet desperation; the heroic story is a standard adventurer cave-crawl with some mild cultural flavouring; neither of them feature enormously well-developed characters or worlds, both have prose that is capable but not not outstanding. If there’s one thing that Twine does a lot of**, it’s direct representation of intense states of mental suffering; Raik‘s version is fairly orthodox, and not among the more attention-commandingly raw.

Interesting mechanics: there is a maze section, representing a panic attack. The usage here assumes that mazes are crappy experiences, and the maze is apparently simple enough that you can traverse it by flailing wildly in every direction. This feels like a technique that makes sense, and an idea worth trying; other works have done things where frustrating game mechanics represent frustrated character agency, with varying levels of success; but here the two don’t quite click. Botheration in a game maze is a little too unlike a panic attack. I can see where the idea comes from – being lost in a real-world, physical space is a panic-inducing thing – but in a game, particularly a game with no time component, it’s not threatening. Indeed, it kind of divorced me from the words of the maze themselves – the garble of negativity faded into the background, became the gloss on a functional experience rather than the core of an emotional one.

Worthwhile, interesting, but ultimately I was only mildly enthusiastic about this one.

Score: 7

*Genre fantasy has always, since it became recognisable as a genre, involved an attempt to reconstruct a cultural heritage, even if much of that reconstruction is back-formation; it’s a continuation of the project begun with Ivanhoe. Thus the USA Medieval fantasy where the fields grow pumpkins, tomatoes and maize; thus also the embarrassment of riches of games drawing heavily on Germanic culture.

**The author notes suggest that it’s an exploration of a specific criticism of Depression Quest: that by taking a functional, medical approach to depression it reduces it to a rational system and minimises the interior experience of mental illness. The thing is that Depression Quest is already highly atypical in this regard, and most Twine games that deal with mental illness or suffering take a strongly interior, experiential approach.

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3 Responses to IF Comp 2014: Raik

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Raik (Harry Giles) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. I haven’t played this game yet, but your review is one of the most incisive and thoughtful I’ve seen, and makes me want to check it out.

    Also, a cheesy suggestion from someone who hasn’t played the game: could the Staff of Salmon be a reference to Alec Salmond? A Scottish nationalism joke? It’s a frivolous proposition, but given the apparently near-parodic Scottishness of the fantasy world, perhaps it’s not completely impossible.

    • Thank you.

      The Alec Salmond thing had occurred to me, but there didn’t really seem like enough to support it – I’d have expected clearer signals. Possibly it makes sense as an allegory if you are intimately familiar with the details of SNP internal politics or something.

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