ParserComp: Sunburn

sunburnContinuing with ParserComp: Sunburn (Caelyn Sandel). This game deals centrally with harassment and abduction, and the review obviously will too, so let’s start out behind a cut.

Story: Vampire Laura has been kidnapped by some douchebag she dated once, and trapped in a room that will soon be exposed to sunlight. She has to escape the room and then figure out what to do about aforementioned douchebag.

There’s a little inconsistency with one of the endings – if Laura just runs away, it suggests that the cops hate vampires and it’s a bad idea to go to them. But going to the cops is presented as a reasonable option after biting the guy, which seems unintuitive. (I can come up with a handful of perfectly good explanations for this – maybe Laura just feels more optimistic about things when properly fed, maybe the legal system in this world tends to look more kindly on cases where violent self-defence takes place – but if it’s not present in the work, it’s kind of a problem.)

More generally, there’s a built-in problem with the X-Men formula for talking about oppression – with paranormals representing whatever marginalised group you want to be talking about – because the thing about paranormals is that they’re more powerful than regular people. Your standard-issue vampire, in particular, is solidly in the oppressor camp – aristocratic, inherently more powerful than humans both socially and physically, reliant upon predating the weak. Even relatively sympathetic vampire stories emphasize that it takes a huge struggle for vampires to eschew murdering and controlling people; and this means that even relatively progressive readings of the trope tend to wander into awful territory (the vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night murders a homeless person because, y’know, if you have to murder someone…)

And in a lot of stories we can gloss over this to some extent, in the same way that we can agree to sometimes ignore how superhero stories are kind of premised on the idea that vigilante violence would be totally fine if it were carried out by really powerful vigilantes. But this is a story that’s aiming at relatively serious material, and doing so via the well-trodden trope of the Feminine as Monstrous, so it’s tough to write this off as incidental.

A lot of this boils down to: this story would be stronger if we had a more developed picture of Laura, both as a person and in terms of what ‘vampire’ really entails in this world. Early on we get this:

Looking good, Laura. At least … you assume you look good. You’re still dressed in your date clothes, and you think you’ve still got makeup on, too. You’re a little underfed right now, but you’re rocking the skinny look.

And I thought, OK, this is a start, this is looking to be a particular character with her own voice – but that doesn’t ever have a chance to get expanded upon. So I think this has something of the same problem I had with Impostor Syndrome: that the better I know a fictional character the more deeply I’m able to care about them. 3.

Writing: This is largely functional, deliver-info-and-get-out-of-the-way stuff. I think that the default parser tone takes over a little more than is optimal, carrying over to sequences where it’s rather less appropriate:

Leaving Paul no time to react, you let your instincts to take control and lunge forward teeth-first. He tries to raise the crossbow, but you knock it to the side and sink your fangs into his neck. He struggles to break free, but your bloodlust lends you a desperate animal strength.

As Paul’s lifeblood flows into your body, you feel your strength
returning. The beast inside you urges you to drain him dry and cast his shriveled body aside, but you steel yourself, tear your mouth away from his skin, and drop his body to the floor.

This isn’t bad by any means – it’s not as if it fails to mention any emotional responses – but it ends up feeling a little perfunctory, a little too flat for the kind of mood it’s representing. There’s a degree of reliance on stock metaphor and phrasing – ‘the beast inside you’, ‘a desperate animal strength’ – to the point where it feels a little bit like ‘c’mon, you know how this kind of scene goes.’ As a climactic moment of triumph, it’s… OK.

I wondered a little whether this might have been intended as the point – to tame horrific fears by couching them in the calming conventions of stock-parserese, in a world where every problem can be reduced to a puzzle (I strongly suspect that for at least some players, the impersonal, gentle-paced, anodyne, methodical default mood of trad parser represents an active good).

The other thing about the writing is that the villain of the piece, Paul, represents a category of actually-existing people whom, were they a fictional creation, would be laughed out of the slushpile for being too ludicrously villainous and blinkered. The tack here is very boiled-down: given his premise, he’s exactly what you’d expect. Which makes sense – you could hardly lampoon or exaggerate beyond reality, and making him sympathetic would be beside the point – but it does make him essentially dull. (And not even jarringly dull, in a banality-of-evil loving-father-is-death-camp-guard way). There are one or two well-observed details – the relation between fetishisation, icky conditional acceptance and contempt that is going on with Paul’s attitude to vampires – but to a large degree this is just, yeah, this thing exists and is shit.

(It’s a decent detail that you don’t actually have to listen to his rant, but because of game-y convention – generally if something is plot-significant it’ll contain details that are play-significant, too – I only realised this in retrospect.)

3.

Puzzles: The puzzles are simple dry-goods affairs, not completely trivial but a little too straightforward to be satisfying. It’s effective at making play run smoothly, with well-deployed pointers – in fact, so much so that it undermines the pacing a bit, because I didn’t really have time to feel threatened or trapped. (Compare, say, Marika the Offering.) In one instance I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing something until after I had done it: I sprayed the ID card with laminate spray because, well, I had laminate spray and it was the only suitable object, and only then thought ‘maybe I could use this to jimmy the latch.’ 3.

Theme: Sunlight presents the immediate threat. On the other hand, ‘vampire is trapped/imprisoned by enemies in space where sunlight will fall’ is a stock vampire-story element, and this is not an unusual use of it. So it’s a significant use of the theme, but not a deeply-engaged one. 3.

Technical: This is basically fine, although it’s a small game with simple puzzles and a stripped-down environment, so there’s not a huge amount to really go wrong. There’s an unimplemented synonym or two (‘fireball’). There is, now that I go back to look, a nicely-organised hint system. Competently executed, but not a stand-out. 3.

Overall: This felt like a piece intentionally designed for small, manageable objectives; it’s all capably made, but I found it hard to find any one thing to get excited about. 3.

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3 Responses to ParserComp: Sunburn

  1. I’m really enjoying your reviews of this comp so far.

    Also, you really put your finger on what’s wrong with the “supernatural creatures represent real-world oppressed minorities” trope in general, and using vampires in this context in particular. In fact, I might start linking to this review next time I try to explain why that trope is stupid and creepy.

    • Well, I don’t think it’s inevitably stupid and creepy: I think it’s a problem that an author needs to address at some point if they’re going to employ the trope, and that can very easily get stupid and creepy if leant on too heavily.

      As used here, I think it’s more awkward than creepy: it’s a metaphor that doesn’t quite line up with the job being asked of it, not one that has metamorphosed into a messed-up worldview.

  2. Pingback: ParserComp Summary | These Heterogenous Tasks

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