IF Comp 2014: The Black Lily

blacklilyThe Black Lily (Hannes Schueller) is an Inform parser-based game. It goes into some pretty creepy places, the specific nature of which is thoroughly spoilerish, so warnings will appear directly under the cut.

This means that I should probably create some buffer space. I am drinking some lavender coffee right now. Native to the Mediterranean, lavender is widely grown in rain-shadowed regions of the Pacific Northwest. Culinary lavender is easiest to use in powdered form as a spice, although the whole flowers may be used in recipes where the flavour has more time to be drawn out, such as a herb on broiled fish or for dry-hopping beer. Although lavender is often associated with cloying, perfumed, grandma’s-closet aromas, in food the floral flavour is complemented by woodier notes – a complexity often lost when its flavour is delivered in syrups, as is typical in coffee or cocktails. My coffee is all gone now, as I assume is most of your patience. Onwards!

Warning: serial killers, questionable treatment of transgender themes.

This is largely a retrospective story, as the protagonist thinks back on the women in his life. The protagonist is a stronger presence than any of those women, though: he comes off as a guy obsessed – in a manner akin to a certain Gustav – with his own elegance and sophistication.

Personally, I am not a huge admirer of my body, but women seem to like it. My facial features are edgy, but not in an unpleasant way. I always look neat, carried with the appropriate demeanour. My biggest strength, if my admirers are to be believed, are my enigmatic eyes. Fate has given me a very slim build, right in line with the current trends.

‘I am not a huge admirer of my body – but since you asked, here are some highlights from my three-hour beauty regimen…’

The whole thing has the air of an advertisement for cologne, or some other prestige product where the main thing really being sold is a dream of effortless, sexy, sophisticated glamour. It’s James Bond with a little art-house styling. In the protagonist’s self-edited view of his life, he loafs elegantly around his large and elegant home (even the towel dropped on the bathroom floor is elegant), goes to pumpin’ nightclubs / upscale boutiques / trendy beach resorts, encounters a succession of hot women (various flavours) who are all immediately drawn to him, after which… fade to black. There’s a running theme that draws him to these women: the design of a black lily.

The thing about artsy perfume ads, though, is that to maintain the fantasy everything has to look sophisticated and expensive, including the cinematography. Black Lily‘s prose is clearly reaching for lush elegance, but it’s full of tin-ear moments. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The warm summer rain paints a pattern on the vespertine pavements of Rome. I’m in my shower while large drops of rain aggressively knock against the window, just to join with its siblings to form a rill.

‘Vespertine’ means ‘evening.’ ‘Evening’ works perfectly well as an adjective, and on the whole, given a choice between a serviceable, well-known, two-syllable Germanic word and an obscure three-syllable Latinate one, you’d better have an amazing reason to go for the latter. Drop ‘vespertine’ in your opening sentence,  you’re declaring ‘my writing is going to fucking soar.‘ Except that it doesn’t.

The subject of the second sentence gets lost, then shifts from a plural to a singular. The ‘just’ would make more sense as an ‘only’, or excised. The rain shifts character from one sentence to another: ‘paints a pattern’ feels delicate, ‘aggressively knock’ is a downpour. Meanwhile the perspective executes a similarly clunky shift of gears: pavement, shower, window.

The thing that I thought about this most was American Psycho (the movie), the central message of which is that Patrick Bateman has crafted a life premised on a continual fueling of his ego – but this is never enough, and no matter how much effort is put into maintaining his life as a zone dedicated to self-aggrandisement, things slip through the cracks to disrupt it. In American Psycho, though, the cracks are easily recognised. Bateman’s colleagues don’t acknowledge his business card as more tasteful than theirs; his blood boils at the slight. The narrative perspective is very clear: we’re meant to be repulsed by this guy.

Now – okay, picture a movie where the perspective is aiming to aggrandise the protagonist – a Bond film, say. Everything is set up to portray Bond as tough, sophisticated, clever, alluring – except that the cinematography’s a bit off. There are inappropriate close-ups, scenes that linger a couple of beats too long, awkwardly framed shots. All the time. Every shot. Do you read this as an intentional subversion of the slick, sophisticated fantasy of Bond, or as a failed but sincere attempt to support it?

With an elegant spin, I got closer towards Femi’s aesthetically moving body from behind.

(The ‘from behind’ there is so out-of-place that it feels like an ‘…in bed’ joke. ‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union from behind.’ ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil from behind.’)

When the protagonist thinks back on the women in his life, he doesn’t recall anything resembling a relationship: speech doesn’t occur, or is elided; there’s a fade to black after the beginnings of a first encounter. Black gloves are slipped on at the end of one scene. (Apparently if you’re familiar with the Italian giallo genre – which I had not previously heard of – this is a sure sign of a serial killer. I read it as just another affectation.)

There are a couple of major plot elements which it is possible to miss more or less completely if you just follow the walkthrough. Things get sufficiently weird towards the ending that it’s clear that there’s a whole lot more going on than is obvious, but at this point I didn’t feel moved to go back and try again. Comp Judge Diligence (and other reviewers) moved me against my will to go back for further perusal, and… hrm.

If you poke around for long enough, hints emerge that the protagonist is a trans man and is doing his utmost not to think about it. There’s an implication that the women get killed because they break the facade, but very little is really spelled out. I’m in favour of understatement and ambiguity – and some of the discoveries are neatly underplayed – but I felt that a little more was required here.

So, okay, Hitchcock twist. There are two problems with this.

Mechanically, a big problem with this is that in order to Get It, the game wants you to poke around to discover extra points and endings and stuff; but that kind of approach requires an environment that encourages and rewards poking around. This doesn’t do that for a long time, really. I think it’s partly because the character’s motivations are a sort of black box: the author knows the kind of thing that they would do, but wants to keep this largely opaque to the audience until it happens. And the protagonist’s headspace is kind of a crawly place to inhabit, absent any narrative signals that crawliness is the intention.

And thematically, this is a deal where someone’s a serial killer because they’re trans, and that this is being used principally as a Clever Twist. This feels… kind of cheap. (Yeah, giallo is a cheap, pulpy genre. But when you choose to adopt a genre’s conventions, you take on responsibility for everything that comes with that package.) Trans characters get presented as unnatural, monstrous threats to Normal People often enough that, well, if you’re going to do something in that general direction you’d better have some exemplary sympathetic depiction. And having gone through three serial killer games so far this comp, my feeling is that making a character a serial killer kind of reduces your options to make them sympathetic.

I dunno. I’m also a lot less excited about Clever Twist of Perception premises than many readers appear to be.

This has some commonalities with the author’s previous game The Story of Mr. P (my review here) and shares some of the same problems – that it wants the player to poke and prod at the edges of the world until cracks start to emerge in its assumptions, but didn’t provide enough motivation, either mechanically or textually, to make me want to stick around and do that. I suppose that a glistening playboy 1970s is more promising than a bland suburban 1950s, but this is still some distance from the experience that’s being aimed at.

Score: 4

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6 Responses to IF Comp 2014: The Black Lily

  1. Eriorg says:

    given a choice between a serviceable, well-known, two-syllable Germanic word and an obscure three-syllable Latinate one, you’d better have an amazing reason to go for the latter.

    You seem to imply that Latinate words are by nature more difficult or more pretentious than Germanic ones. It’s not the first time I’ve seen that idea in texts in English, but it’s a bit difficult to understand for me, probably because my first language is French, where words of Latin origin are the norm. Is that idea generally accepted among English-speaking people, and if it is: why?

    • Reiko says:

      English has at its base a stock of Germanic words, and then the Latin/Greek root words were mashed into it to form a full and diverse language. Germanic words tend to be simpler, more common, with fewer syllables. Many English-speakers (at least in the US, possibly a bit less so in the UK due to proximity) don’t know a Romance language well enough to be really conversant in the Latin/Greek roots, or aren’t trained well in Latin/Greek roots in English (I was, but I think my English language training was deeper than average). So using less common Latin/Greek words means that the writer is more scholarly or well-read, which can be seen as pretentious in some contexts.

      I would guess based on his name that the author of the Black Lily is European and therefore has a better command of Latinate words in English than average, and perhaps, like you, doesn’t consider them more difficult (although I would guess his language to be German rather than French). I didn’t play the game, but the excerpts do show an uneven use of language, which would also be consistent with a European who has two or more languages at approximately an equal level.

    • Depends on what you mean by ‘generally accepted’; most people don’t spend much time thinking about etymology in the first place.

      The main underlying reason is that the basic vocabulary – the words for normal stuff that gets used all the time – of English is largely Germanic. French, Latin and Greek were the languages of the ruling class, of priesthood, of science and academics, and of High Art. If you look at a Latin/Greek-derived word and compare it to its Germanic-derived synonym, very often the Latin-derived one will sound more consciously poetic, intellectually cool, or euphemistic to the anglophone ear. The effect is the kind of thing that people are liable to sense even if they’re not paying attention to etymology.

      This is a very, very general tendency, of course; plenty of words with Latin, Greek or French derivation don’t normally have this effect. But it can be a useful lens when you’re choosing between two synonyms, or weighing the effect of a relatively-obscure word, or figuring out why a sentence carries a particular tone.

  2. Alan DeNiro says:

    I think it’s also especially complicated by 18th Augustan ideas about the English language–that it should emulate Latin, AT ALL COSTS–that caused all sorts of problems in syntax and diction. As a professional copy editor I still see the effects of this, usually in grammar shibboleths that have gotten passed down from generations of English teachers, which can make the language seem sound more stilted than it ought to.

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