IF Comp ’16: Yes, my mother is…

yesmymotherYes, my mother is… is a piece of near-future social SF, focused on n/a, a social movement with the impossible aspiration of completely sui generis identity and presentation. The protagonist, an n/a counselor and the daughter of a prominent figure in the early n/a movement, has a series of conversations, with strangers and with significant people in her life, about the movement and her mother.

As usual, you arrive at work a good half an hour before you’re supposed to start. Time enough to drink a little something and do some boring but needed paperwork in peace.

In spite of that, about once a week, someone manages to come in even earlier than you. And today is one of those days. A skinny, frail, androgynous, and almost anonymous in their plain sweatshirt and trainers, person is sitting on one of the four plastic chairs making up your waiting room. Well, sitting may not be the best of words seeing how much they’re fidgeting and blatantly oozing with stress.

The writing could really use some sharpening up. There are clues which I think probably suggest an imperfectly fluent second-language writer, although it took me a couple of pages to get that sense. (Its comma placement doesn’t always fit the rhythm of natural speech in English, for instance.)

It’s ambiguous at points – in the above quote, ‘drink a little something’ kind of sounds as though the protagonist starts the day with a slug of gin. More often, though, it specifies things too much. (Paperwork is usually boring but needed. ‘Frail’ tends to suggest skinniness.) This is a problem because it makes makes the writing drag, and in places the individual sentences get too cumbersome and trip over themselves.

Well, sitting may not be the best of words seeing how much they’re fidgeting and blatantly oozing with stress.

‘Well, X may not be the best of words’ – OK, then use a better one!

The writing gets… even weirder and less naturalistic-feeling when it gets into dialogue; I seriously can’t imagine an actual counseling session even vaguely resembling the first conversation, and I honestly can’t tell what’s going on: does the author think actual counseling works like this, or are they just struggling with writing dialogue, or is the protagonist meant to be a crap counselor, or are things meant to be weird and that’s the point? I began to lose faith that anybody in the story was behaving in ways that made sense. The following, for instance, is meant to be a piece of officialese (although somehow Mary has access to it, for reasons unclear):

As detailed in this report, Mary Johnson brilliantly succeeded at every single psychological test. She therefore has to be a perfectly sane woman gifted with above average intelligence. I have no medical objection to her getting the post she asked for.

This is the note you get when you go to Donald Trump’s psychiatrist.

OK. So there are potentially interesting ideas here: the author has obviously developed a lot of this world, its characters and politics and philosophies and how they all interrelate. But the quality of writing meant that I really struggled to get through it.

Partly it’s about the meaning of words and phrases. In lots of cases, words are used non-idiomatically, and sometimes incorrectly – ‘associability’ means the quality of being associable, not of being anti-social. Mostly I could figure out the intended meaning, but it slowed things down, and meant that I got less and less confident that I understood what was being said, particularly since what’s being discussed is often relatively fine points about culture, identity and so on. This is more challenging because the story is not very player-driven, much of the plot is exposition-heavy, and the text is organised into big blocks of text that are often connected by no-choice jumps. There are ways to keep an audience engaged through a low-choice story, but they’re not in evidence here. (A lot of the importance of choice is how much influence the player feels as though they have. Yes lists a bunch of different endings, but while I was playing it it really didn’t feel as though I was changing much.)

There’s also the issue that it’s balancing two things: a piece that’s a frame for a series of conversations about Social Questions, and a fiction piece with characters who have histories and motivations and goals.  These are hard to mix well; they’re different modes of writing, and of reading. Social SF always struggles with this to some extent, and show-don’t-tell is not something that social SF can or should perfectly adhere to – but there still has to be a balance, or you end up with Rand-style manifesto speeches and Kim Stanley Robinson waffle. It’s not as though Yes is entirely retrospectives and social commentary; there’s stuff happening in the present, there’s a fight scene. A story at this point of balance could work, but it’d need to be better-supported.

So. There are multiple elements at work which tend to make me glaze over – long text passages between choices, prolix style, a weak sense of player agency, exposition-heavy plot, unnaturalistic dialogue and behaviour. There are plenty of works which get away with some of these, because there are other things compensating to hold the attention. But taken all together, I just couldn’t get myself to invest the effort required to keep paying attention to it. This is a 4: interesting and difficult ambitions, but really struggling with delivery.

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2 Responses to IF Comp ’16: Yes, my mother is…

  1. Doug Egan says:

    I thought it was just me who had trouble wading through this, because I tend to be an easily distractable reader. I played through to two endings. During the second game I found myself skimming down the text as fast as I could, trying to find the “big reveal”. But at the end of that second play, I still didn’t entirely understand what was going on. I’m not sure I can write a fair review, but yours pinpoints some of the specific challenges in the prose. (And you don’t even mention the PC cold-cocking one of the visitors in her therapy office).

  2. dougorleans says:

    Did you check out the walkthrough? (Maybe it was added later?) There is more player agency than I expected at first, and the state-tracking is more complicated than I figured out from a few playthroughs. And I like how different branches unlock different world-building background documents, but they accumulate in the epilogue over multiple playthroughs. Despite the awkward/bad writing, the game ended up sort of winning me over. I read it as a deconstructed superhero tale, told from the POV of the activist-as-hero’s adult daughter, struggling with how to deal with her legacy while helping people in her own way. Not really a kind of story I’ve seen before.

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