IF Comp 2017: Salt

saltySalt (Gareth Damian Martin) is a (heavily-customised) Twine piece about swimming. It’s focused on immediate experience, physical and mental. It has a very vaguely-defined protagonist, because it’s about an activity that takes you out of yourself. The protagonist starts on the shore, and swims out across a gulf; in my playthrough, at least, they return to the shore they started on.

It’s very thoroughly customised. (Man, is this ever a year for heavily-customised presentations.) There’s suitably underwater-sounding music. It’s aiming to be an Experience as much as a text.

You’re asked to hit the space-bar as you play, suggesting the rhythm of a swimmer’s stroke; a rhythm bar counts down, quite quickly, not evenly enough to establish a perfect regular rhythm. If you stop, the sequence of text stops, and the swimmer surfaces; a narrative break.

It’s pretty obvious what this is doing: it’s a device to involve the player, to hold their attention by giving them something to do that requires attention. (Compare the sigil-drawing in With Those We Love Alive.) The random variation, getting gradually faster and faster, is not very much like a swimming stroke at all, but it means that you can’t just get into a rhythm and forget about it. I think the closest analogy I can come up with is one of those improv exercises where the whole group claps along as someone does something; the point of the clapping is to keep you involved.

The thing is, this was so transparent that I resented it a little. I see you, trying to keep me in my seat and awake while you prose-poem at me. Well, OK, bro. Whatcha got. (In general I’m not real keen on efforts by game-makers to control more aspects of the game experience.)

I feel as though if that’s the idea, the prose-poem really needs to bring it. And this is… always decent, sometimes good. But the whole game is built to draw focus to this one stream of text, to make you watch it like a hawk in case it disappears before you’re done. And that puts a lot of pressure on it to be really good. This feels like a piece of music – there’s a basic melody, and the player’s been dragooned into doing percussion, but it’s all arranged around the vocal part, which means that it lives or dies on the vocals. And pulling that off while keeping things relatively nonspecific is difficult; a lot of the better moments were when it allowed itself to become more specific, such as around the sunken city. When I was given options I generally pushed towards the choice that seemed as though it would give me more specific information, because woolly vagueness frustrates me; but this was not something the game was willing to go along with.

It did make me want to go swimming rather a lot. Physically restless. I note that other people have written about this as a game with horror undercurrents, or that induces anxiety, and I didn’t get that at all. Most of the ocean swimming I’ve done recently has been with a snorkel (which flattens out the anxiety of breathing) and flippers (which give you a lot more power for rather less effort, lowering the prospect that you’ll get worn out.) So my associations may not line up with the intent here.

Ultimately, I think that the deal here is that this game is trying to induce a particular register of experience that I’m generally not all that interested in being supplied by games, particularly text games. So the threshold at which I’m willing to buy into it is a fair bit higher.

Score: 6.

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