IF Comp 2018: Polish the Glass

polishglassPolish the Glass is a choice-based horror piece, almost entirely linear, about growing up under a family curse and being unable to escape it yourself.

This is a piece which gets narrative flow, and which is thinking about text presentation. It’s not astonishing text formatting, but care and thought and taste has been put into it, and that goes a long way. And it understands that when you’re delivering long chunks of linear narrative you’ve got to be thinking about the pacing of that text. I’ve played a lot of games this comp where the author plainly hasn’t really given any thought to how pleasant or easy their game is to read, so this is comes as a big relief.

It’s a mixed piece, otherwise. While it flows great at the sentence-to-sentence level, its pacing felt a bit off at the larger scale. And flow aside, its prose is sometimes a little awkward. An example:

After becoming a certified ice crusher I graduated to bigger and better ventures. The cooks – Burly and Skid-made me their runner. I would retrieve various ingredients and foods needed for them to prepare their battered foods.

So, the first two sentences are OK, but the last is just bad: it’s stilted, ‘foods’ is a weak word and gets worse in the repetition, ‘various ingredients and foods’ piles vague on vague where one word would have done. But the story gets away with it, because it’s got flow: the sentence isn’t pretty, but it delivers the information and you can move on. This is ‘this is a good writer who needs a good editor’ stuff, I think, not ‘this is someone who fundamentally doesn’t get what makes a good sentence or a good story.’

Where it didn’t quite land, for me, was the balance between larger-scale pacing and the Hidden Horrific Thing. It’s paced as a certain register of horror story, with a slow build of things being slightly unnerving and then a maelstrom of damage at the climax. At first I thought that the long arc was plotted a little too slowly, but I think it’s more that the threat didn’t really connect as creepy enough. There are good notes in there – the meat smell of the freezers – but its central motif, the obsessive glass-polishing, just didn’t manage to convince me as uncanny, and because that didn’t click it ended up feeling heavy-handed. Horror, like comedy, is a make-or-break kind of deal. And this came close. But ultimately I think that it did a better job of the family-biography coming-of-age parts of the text than it did with the spookiness.

I don’t particularly think that this needed more interactivity; it would be quite tricky to make that work, I think, with the first-person childhood-retrospective narration and the sense of inevitability. I do think that the interactive elements it does use could have been handled better. There are some standard Twiney cycling-text bits, but they’re used so seldom that they feel a bit out-of-place and arbitrary where they show up; it would have made more sense to either use them more regularly, or use them as a way of drawing attention to particularly significant things.

Interactivity – or the appearance of it – does show up, in the climactic-horror scene. I think this is a decent idea – it coincides with a shift in the style of display, so together they’re a good signal that this is Different and Wrong. And narratively it’s a shift from a general retrospective with a feeling of inevitability about it – ‘no matter what I do my life always seems to drift back here’ – to an acutely specific, immediate event where small choices could mean the difference between life and death. The problem is that it opens with choices that include left or right. Anyone who’s played more than a handful of choice-based games has learned to loathe the left-or-right choice; it’s the kind of thing that instantly makes your readers trust you a little less, that kicks them out of immersion in order to think ‘god, I can’t believe they put a left-or-right choice in here.’ It’s particularly unfortunate here, just at the moment where it becomes really crucial for the player to be grabbed and held by the story.

Quibbling: one scene from the character’s childhood has a heavy focus on the term ‘bucket list’, which is not attested before 2006 (as far as I can tell, the phrase was coined for the movie). This puts a big ol’ date-stamp on a story that’s otherwise carefully vague about time and place – at any rate, it feels odd in a world where your dad gets a steady job at the steel plant. So that sequence felt as though it was a scene from a different story, really, or the airing of an authorial hobby-horse.

Anyway: as a first piece of IF I think this is promising, even if, for me, it didn’t quite manage to pull of what it was going for. I’d hope to see more from this author. 6.

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