Cactus Blue Hotel (Astrid Dalmady, Twine) is a southwestern-surreal coming-of-age road trip story. Three high-school graduates are on a road trip across the Southwest; they stop at a motel, which turns out to be a magical wainscot or polder, and early on it’s unclear what exactly this represents – trap, refuge, portal, halfway house.
It’s got a very parser-y sensibility: a static map, setting-focused story, a bunch of NPCs who mostly hunker in the same place waiting for you to have conversations with them, which primarily involve asking them about one another. The reference points that spring to mind are all parser, too: The Trip and Sand-dancer for nocturnal Southwestern surreal, The Next Day for teen-limbo angst, probably a bit of Robb Sherwin night-journey and Blue Chairs as well.
What choice lends to it is fluidity, the sense of one thing flowing naturally from the next that comes in dreams or particularly successful nights of revelry. Choice-based tends to heighten the sense that your choices are not wholly your own, that you’re being impelled by some external force; and that’s also true of the kind of surreal experience that Motel is evoking. But at the same time it’s got a very orderly plot design, and communicates that effectively: I always had a pretty strong sense of what my next objective ought to be and how I might go about looking for it, and of where the story was liable to lead.
The characters trapped in the motel have shifted into archetypes, and function as liminal beings, guides and examples for the hero’s progress; raise the stakes and you could totally script this as a minor episode of Sandman. At times there are definite elements of lampshade-hanging. The Band in particular have moments where they seem like the voice of the author commentary.
By the end of the game things have clarified: the characters at the hotel are stuck because they’re not ready to face up to their anxieties and move on to the next phase of their lives. This is a story about quiet, secret desperation about the kind of mundane things which everyone else seems to take in stride, and the Motel’s role is as much about exposing that desperation as it is about avoidance.
Earlier on I suggested that things were a little low-stakes. As far as we’re shown, none of the characters are dealing with extreme trauma, catastrophically failed lives or inextricable predicaments. There’s a sort of subtext going on that many, or most, of these anxieties are paper tigers, that most of the characters’ problems are the anxiety itself. And because there are a lot of characters, most of their individual issues are more gestured-at than explored: for some, you never really get a very clear sense of what their deal is.
So, for instance, it’s not really that much of a coming-out story. Coming out is one of Maria Elena’s issues, but this is not The Story of Maria’s Crush on Lex, and it’s not really shown as inherently more of a Big Deal than, say, Becky’s impending breakup with her high-school boyfriend. Similarly, there are a number of points about the incidental weariness of being Latina in an Anglo world, but this isn’t what you’d call a major focus. Not that all the Issues of the residents are shown as equivalent or equally sympathetic, exactly – the paranoid jackalope and the writer’s-block guy don’t come off well. But they’re all in the same ballpark.
As prose style goes, it’s not flashy but it’s very tight: it maintains a natural, conversational feeling while avoiding sprawl, which means that it goes down easy. Short paragraphs – white-on-black text makes that pretty important just for readability, sure, but it also helps the flow of things. A lot of this is inobtrusive. The following description, for instance, isn’t lavishly detailed, striking, mellifluous or piercingly-observed, but it does precisely what is required of it.
The smell of industrial strength detergent. A poorly done painting of red rock mesas. It was a shitty room exactly the same as a million other shitty rooms, in a million other nowheres.
But that didn’t make the two queen beds look any less inviting.
If you’ve ever traveled in the US, you recognise this room. Done.
If there’s anything negative to say about this, it’s that while it seemed highly competent across the board, I never really got anything that outright delighted or awed me; there’s a great deal to like about it, but I didn’t find anything to love. (Historically, that’s promising for Comp performance.) 8.
Disclaimer: I am culpable for suggesting the mini-golf themes. I didn’t have any other input on the game’s development. Any points I may have awarded on the basis of this nepotism are more than nullified by the two entirely separate godawful earworms it gave me.