IF Comp 2015: Crossroads

Crossroads (Cat Manning) is an atmospheric piece about going into a wood to make a bargain with a witch. The protagonist is highly variable and often pretty vague: what they’re bargaining for varies broadly, and isn’t always explicitly defined even once you’ve chosen it.

The writing’s generally good, but I felt as though it didn’t quite bear up on the demands being made of it:

“So. You must have been desperate to come to me.” Yellow eyes peer out at you from the undergrowth. Quiet. Hungry. You aren’t alone. “Before you tell me what you need: this is my forest. I obey its laws; it obeys mine.”

“If you want my help: you’ll agree to my bargains. Or you can walk away now, leave the woods unscathed. And unchanged.” She smiles. Those sharp white teeth. As if she knows already. Knows how far you’re prepared to go.

The game is all like this – high-intensity scenes laden with looming, vague significance. The prose is all short, punchy sentences, which is a strong technique; but since everything is like that, it begins to feel like a parody of itself. This is as much about the rhythm as anything: a lot of these are great emphasis sentences, but you can’t emphasise everything without the punch going out of it. The emotional tone doesn’t have peaks and valleys – it wants to take things to 11 and keep them there. That’s not an impossible task, but it’s a really tough one. You can’t pull it off just with good writing; it needs to be shot through with moments of brilliance, and quite a lot of them, or the tone will start to feel overwrought.

In some places, there are quite a lot of pauses before text-delivery, most of which go on just long enough to make me start eye-rolling. Again, this is a very context-dependent technique, one that gambles on how successful the rest of the work has been thus far; if I had been completely engaged with the game by this point, I might have got something out of the pauses.

To reiterate: the dramatic pause before delivering text is a high-stakes device, one which usually fails and costs you when it does. Pause-until-keypress, or combined keypress-or-time pauses, are much safer. (Yes, they take a small element of creative control away from the author. I submit that this is not the kind of control that you want to have.)

Further personal skews: I play a lot of Monsterhearts, a horror RPG that uses monstrosity as a lens to explore personal and interpersonal Issues. So a lot of the scenarios presented here – the ritual bargain with sinister powers in a dark wood, the lust-triggered werewolf attack – feel very acutely like stock devices to me. Stock devices are incredibly useful – MH is mostly built out of them – but the point of them is that they’re not interesting in themselves. They’re interesting insofar as they’re employed as tools: to advance a story, to explore real-world issues or emotions, or to illuminate characters. “Werewolves are about dysfunctional anger and violence, especially towards loved ones” isn’t a conclusion: it’s a beginning.

Because the stories of Crossroads are fragments, they’re probably not intended as elements of an story arc or as developments of a character. They’re more about capturing a mood, a moment of personal struggle, the sick trepidation of personally-costly decisions.

This is approaching poetry, really. Poetry – at least, straightforwardly-sincere poetry, poetry that isn’t snarking at itself – is really fucking difficult. This fell short for me, but it feels like a strong failure. I think this is a 7.

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