The Urge, by PaperBlurt, is a serial-killer piece that loudly declares itself to be Not A Game at the outset.
It has the distinction of having pretty much the least appealing blurb in this comp, or perhaps any comp. It primed me to expect a game which a) reveled in dealing with unpleasant subject-matter for the sake of it, and b) had a horrible, horrible ear for language. Which, on the first count, is fair enough – if you’re making a game about a sadistic serial killer, it’s polite to advertise that shit in advance. (Speaking of which: stalking, abduction, torture.) On the second, poetry’s among the very hardest kinds of writing you can do, and the writing style of a blurb is going to set expectations for the entire game. I implore you: if you’re not supremely confident that you can knock it out of the park, don’t put poetry in your blurb.
The protagonist is a serial killer of the Hollywood-suitable uncontrollable-sadism variety who kills people in a carefully-managed environment out in the woods. Eventually, they happen upon Alex, who, unprecedentedly, they feel attracted to but don’t feel compelled to murder. The couple enter into a more-or-less normal relationship. This works for a little while, with the protagonist still doing the occasional torturey murder on the down-low, until they get careless and kill Alex’s cousin Drew. This prompts the one real choice of the game: to kill yourself or to kill Alex.
The principals are all gender-ambiguous, which is a striking choice given the subject-matter; while female serial killers exist, this is very much not a gender-neutral subject, and the protagonist’s behaviour (stalking, abduction, pseudo-sexual sadism) follows a more typically male pattern. It may be part of an effort to desexualise the presentation of a subject which is often presented in a manner that’s basically softcore fetish porn, or to strip detail out of the character’s already-grey life; if, however, the point is something along the lines of ‘there’s no need to assert gender in a story where gender isn’t relevant’… then I’ll grant the major premise, but the minor premise looks pretty shaky.
Similarly, The Urge doesn’t directly depict the actual murder and torture, which on one level is a relief. The problem is that, outside murder and torture, the viewpoint character sees life as extremely bland, which leaves you with a story that’s mostly about banality and tedium. The things it’s carefully non-specific about – such as the exact setting – contribute to this. So, OK, blandness is obviously part of the point of the story, emphasizing that abduction, torture and murder are the only ways that the protagonist is able to pierce their anhedonia, but the point stands. Much of the narration concerns the banal logistics surrounding the actual torture and murder. Not only do we have a narrator who’s very cagey about a great deal of the story details, they’re also given to chatty rambling about surface detail; the story drags on for considerably longer than I would have preferred.
Modern Life Is Rubbish is a sensitive theme to do well. It’s best when played very understated, because if it’s overstated it’s easy to look like a whiny middle-class teenager complaining about how the suburbs are just the worst. Tone-wise, the crowning moment of Modern Life Is Rubbish in The Urge involves the title image, at which, in an ironically-presented moment of triumph, there are now two toothbrushes in the mug. The tone at this point seems overwhelmingly sarcastic, and sarcastic about a thing about which – all things considered – the protagonist has pretty good reasons to be happy and grateful. Anhedonia can be rendered sympathetic; sarcastic anhedonia, anhedonia twinned with contempt for the mundanes, is much tougher. Possibly this would work better for such readers as could stand Holden Caulfield.
It’s perfectly possible to make a thoroughly-loathsome character sympathetic or at least interesting, but some saving (or at least ameliorating) graces are required. What those graces consist of can vary widely, and doesn’t necessarily need to make the protagonist any more redeemable, or even involve reasons internal to the protagonist; but there needs to be something. The protagonist here really only has two modes: murdery and ennui. Sure, this is kind of the point – The Urge is trying to get at a question not unlike that of De Baron – but that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference.
I think the saving grace is meant to be prose-poetry, which in theory is a thing which could fit the bill. The text is presented in a way that does a very good job of directing close attention to the language – one-line paragraphs, fancy text effects, consciously poetic chapter titles – but the language mostly does not hold up under this kind of scrutiny. The main impression I got of the language in The Urge is… poorly-translated. There are a fair number of proofreading-level errors, and some editing for length wouldn’t hurt, but more significant is that the writing is nowhere near strong enough to manage the load it’s being asked to bear.