IF Comp 2014: Creatures Such As We

??????????????????????????????Creatures Such As We (Lynnea Glasser) is a Choicescript piece about game dev romance ON THE MOON.

So, first things first: this clearly deserves to be in the comp’s top tier. It’s substantial, ambitious, distinctive, capably written, and thoughtful. It deserves further replay after the comp. It’s getting a score in the 7-8 range on the merits. All that said, it was not-quite-there in enough ways that I found the experience ultimately really frustrating. Putting my finger on precisely how has been a little fraught; apologies for a more-than-usually-tangential review.

The protagonist is employed as a guide on a tourism-oriented moon base, a long-haul stint that pays well but has a horrible work culture. As distraction from this, they play videogames, in particular an action game called Creatures Such As We; but the ending proves unsatisfying. Immediately thereafter, the dev team that made Creatures visits the station; the player has the option to romance one of them.

The sense I got here was very much akin to Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 A Fall of Moondust, in which a group of space tourists are trapped in a ship that sinks into moon-quicksand. At least half of that story – the better half, given Clarke’s talents – is about the engineering and logistical challenges of the rescue. The other half – the relevant one for purposes here – relies on the classic dramatic device of shutting up an assortment of characters in close proximity and applying pressure. Creatures’ priorities are the inverse of Fall‘s – its sci-fi elements serve mostly to motivate the character story – but I felt as though Creatures was always dancing around the prospect of that drama hotbox while never quite reaching it.

Creatures has two sources of external pressure: a contagious disease that threatens to spread through the base, followed by a meteorite shower that, together with crappy management, forces an evacuation. (This may not happen in every plotline; I only finished Sadri’s thread.) Dramatically, I don’t think this was entirely successful: I see the need for a twist given the inevitable feel of the virus threat, but this wasn’t so much a twist as ‘ach, that doesn’t work, let’s try something different.’ Perhaps in other threads the disaster goes in other directions.

I wasn’t very excited about the game-within-a-game. Partly this is because it’s a combat-oriented action game, and the excitement of that does not translate readily into text. Partly it’s because the two-undead-leads thing put me immediately in mind of Planescape: Torment and I kept visualising them as the Nameless One and Morte. Fair dos: Fictional Work Within Fictional Work is a hard furrow to plough.

The trick is that the inner game forms the seed for a great deal of what’s going on. This is pretty clearly self-presented as a work about Love and Art. Blurb:

A dating sim about how humanity connects through art, even out in the vastness of space.

Mostly they connect by talking about how artworks are unsatisfactory. (WOO CRITIC LOVE HAROLD BLOOM/FILM CRIT HULK OTP.) Specifically, we’re talking videogame theory: author fiat vs. player demands, escapist gratification vs. Art, the merits of working in indie vs. AAA, representation and minority experience within the industry and in games themselves.

These are in no way Videogame Theory Topics Of The Future: while some are long-standing questions, they’re precisely the subjects that are the most hot-button issues right now, right down to references to specific incidents. This is a standard method in SF, so that’s fine; this isn’t a worldbuilding piece. But it does mean that these are generally topics on which I have Extensive Opinions.

deathofauthor

“If I wanted a frustratingly reductionist conversation about videogame theory, I’ve got Twitter,” I may have muttered to myself. Most of the questions have answers which I’d prefer to answer at essay length, or over the course of an evening of many beers, leavened with rants and gossip. Answering in a one-liner makes it very likely that your meaning will get reframed.

And this, in turn, made it a lot more difficult for me to get to like the NPCs! Generally speaking, eagerness to shoot the shit about aesthetics and videogame theory scores pretty damn highly for me as an attractive quality, but few things are less romantic to me than getting shut out of a conversation. And while this makes sense in-fiction – the protagonist is on decidedly limited time, and is an enthusiast among experts – as a discourse on theory I think it’d have been better-served by discussing fewer things more deeply. I was reminded somewhat of last year’s Impostor Syndrome, which also wanted to touch on ALL THE ISSUES without having enough space for it.

Part of this is that the protagonist’s tastes in game narrative don’t match up well with mine. I’m totally cool with downer endings; I would prefer for fewer games to culminate in the triumph of the player-character. In this I differ, obviously, from the protagonist.

I think the game worked better at more subtle points. The outer game asks you for your region of national origin (not race), and offers a list of gender options that include trans, non-disclosed and something-else options. The inner game asks for race (there are three categories, which some of the game’s designers would not fall into) and gender (two). As far as I could tell, these are the only effects that these choices have on the game. The frame-story’s lists of options are broader, so I suppose the message could just be ‘more options better’, but the reframe on the race vs. region thing suggests that the point is more about how any list of options will inevitably assume categories that will dissatisfy some people.

In ChoiceScript it’s normal for your choices to readily translate into character stats, which you can check in a stats screen. That’s conspicuously absent in Creatures: this is not a game about triumph through mastering skills. You don’t know how well the relationship is doing, or even how precisely it’s tracked. It is like the standard ChoiceScript style insofar as the romance options mainly consist of ‘hey I want to romance this person’ and the game saying ‘yeah okay.’ But a lack of grasp on the effects of your actions – flagged up, particularly, in the inner game, where your choices between combat styles do bugger-all to affect anything that matters – persists.

creatures-1This is a choice that isn’t a choice: it’s a list of all the things the character feels, and none of the options contradict one another. ‘You wish life was that simple’ and ‘you enjoy the escapism’ are different ways of describing much the same thing. ‘You just enjoy experiencing the story’ is one of those phrases that always frustrates me when people use it to talk about their play preferences: it’s vexingly vague. There are a thousand different ways to experience a story: which do you mean?

The weak-grasp feeling produced by not revealing stats is appropriate to the subject-matter: this is very much not a game intended to be about triumph through superior control. (ChoiceScript’s lack of an UNDO function is also good here.)

*

The dating-sim comes from a context of anime-styled art. The default style of anime tends to make differences in facial features hard to recognise, so there’s a tendency towards iconic character design. If you’ve got a half-dozen potential romantic interests, they’re going to be physically very distinct: build, colouration, body language, perhaps distinctive clothes. You will never be pursued by two black-haired medium-height guys with glasses, unless they’re twins. Same deal as superhero costumes: these are media which tend to go for big, over-the-top, unmistakable, template-heavy characterisation.

I mention this because after the intro I felt as though I’d been introduced to a bunch of people all at once at a party, and couldn’t quite match names to faces. Again, I’m pretty sure this is a normal issue in dating sims: you have to introduce all of the potential love interests before the player starts making choices about which one to pursue. Creatures doesn’t rely heavily on visual elements – mannerisms, physical description – which makes sense in a text medium, but I think early on I kind of got Andres mixed up with James and Diana with Sadri. I’m not sure that there’s a simple solution here – giving them pronounced verbal mannerisms or whatever would have been seriously annoying – but it’s an issue, regardless.

And whether because of this or something else – I dunno how to get at this, exactly – a lot of the characters never quite coalesced for me. In a romance you ought to be shipping the leads, or the thing doesn’t work. And I felt as though – okay, the game’s good insofar as it shows developing relationships as being about the development of trust and intimacy, but I ended up feeling as though the characters were more avatars of those ideas than specific people forming specific relationships. I felt as though I was playing along because that was what the game expected, rather than because I was interested in these people.

*

Where the game shines is at acknowledging that questions of theory aren’t abstract issues: they’re tied up with real human concerns. In answering questions you’re motivated by both the honesty of your opinions and the implication that your relationship with the other characters will be shaped by where you stand. (This effect is amplified by the inability to really explain your position.) This is also good because it provides some conflict in the emerging relationship: you’re motivated to choose the option that you think will be most attractive to your love interest, even though you also want to be honest and assert your own position. Expressing yourself is inescapably a social act with social repercussions.

*

I have been chewing this over a lot. Another angle on it: let me bring up angsty paranormal-teens RPG Monsterhearts yet again. In Monsterhearts the PCs don’t have a canonical sexuality. They can identify as whatever they want, and what they choose to do about their feelings is up to them, but the feelings themselves are subject to the actions of other characters and the whims of the dice. You have control over the details, and that’s important, but at heart your choice is to either acknowledge or deny.

This is one reason (of many) why Monsterhearts is not for everyone: at heart, it involves an external authority telling you what your feelings are, and being right. I’m okay with that when it comes to in-fiction sexuality – but aesthetic response is evidently another matter. And I got that sense about Creatures: you’re flat-out told that the PC has this aesthetic response, and you can decide how to interpret that in theory and social acts, but your basic reaction stands. And my gut reaction is – fuck no, as an artist you never get to declare what my aesthetic response is, even by proxy.

Perhaps I’d have been more OK with it if the protagonist had been more strongly characterised: but that particular aesthetic response (and the isolation that forms a context for it, and the feelings of insecurity and resentment around it) are just about the only things strongly established about the character; it’s their opening character note and the thread that runs throughout the story.

Score: 7-8

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