‘This is not a love story,’ begins Venus Meets Venus (kaleidofish), continuing this year’s trend of Twine games that start out by unconvincingly defining themselves. I will grant, I suppose, that ‘love story’ might be taken by some people as something more specific than ‘a story centrally involving love’ (I’m obviously committed to similar positions re: ‘interactive fiction’), but I still can’t help reading this as a rhetorical denial.
Venus Meets Venus tells the story of a cis lesbian’s difficult relationship with a trans woman. It is an emotionally intense work, with a great deal of pain and anxiety and some joy. It has some elements that make it superficially resemble a diary game, but has considerably tighter thematic construction than this might suggest.
It is basically linear with largely superficial interactivity (single through-plot, a relatively small number of optional details), and places a fairly low stress on player involvement; it refers to the protagonist in the second person, but I had to go back and check that it wasn’t first-person. The engagement it commands is mostly textual, but it does a powerful job of it.
The story does not follow the binary balance of the title and cover: it is very much Lynn’s story. She’s is someone who’s deeply anxious and insecure – or, perhaps, who has her anxiety and insecurity magnified by the narrative lens. She’s femme and somewhat uneasy about not being more butch. She wants a lot of sex and feels guilty about it in assorted ways. She drinks too much. She considers herself a mess, ‘not girlfriend material’. She wants to be part of a Movement but doesn’t feel hugely comfortable with the lesbian community. A substantial amount of the narrative involves her churning things over.
Neither Lynn nor the narrative are wholly self-absorbed – but the perspective is pretty unflinching about need; it takes it as read that compromise is a necessary element of good relationships, and focuses on how even good-faith compromise doesn’t erase the things compromised.
The style shifts between classic prose and the orthodox Twine form of Thoughtstream/Lowercase Free Verse – typically the former for recounting encounters with Macy and the latter for Lynn when alone in her head. The effect is that things feel a good deal more rational and manageable when Macy is onscreen, and more nebulous, chaotic, dark and uncontrolled when dealing with introspection. Sex is kind of a stylistic bridge between the two – chaotic but not dark, not powerless but not controlled.
The immediate emphasis on narrative chaos masks a fairly tightly-structured plot – and, in fact, this structure is strongly flagged up by a numbering system. I’m kind of ambivalent about the success of the unifying numbers-as-symbol-for-relationship-stages thing; at times it works, at times it feels forced. But to me that seems an element of Lynn’s struggle to impose an order on things to the point of overcompensation, to bore holes in Chaos. The dramatic crux of the story, the moral, concerns Lynn’s over-eagerness to fit into a Trans Ally model without regard for what her trans girlfriend feels about it. (It is a story about how acceptance is a beginning more than an end, that being abstractly okay with something is never going to be enough.)
If the prose has a fault, it’s a tendency to occasionally wander into the cheesy – melodrama is an occupational risk when writing intense romantic material. The early flirtation scenes, in particular, felt as though there was a fair amount that didn’t quite nail it. Here’s an early description of Macy:
See, the delivery’s good but the double metaphor is too much. There’s a big flag here saying SMOULDERING SEXUAL PREDATOR (BUT THE NON-CREEPY KIND PROBABLY); each figure on its own is serviceable, but together they begin to veer into parody. It makes me think about how actual grins of wolves and eyes of lions are really nothing like the images being conjured up here, even though in other contexts I’d be happy to go with the accepted sense of the figure.
A respectable piece of work, but ultimately I wasn’t able to get mightily jazzed about this one. On reflection, I think this probably was mostly to do with the interaction, which doesn’t offer much beyond weak interactivity and the possibility of missing a fairly small amount of optional text; it . My maximum score for IF that does a good job of the interaction part but mostly takes a pass on the fiction is, if previous games in this comp are any indication, about a 6. For IF that does a good job on the fiction but mostly takes a pass on the interaction, things go a little higher – but, barring something truly exceptional, only a little.