IF Comp 2018: Dead Man’s Fiesta

fiestaDead Man’s Fiesta is a choice-based story about grieving and angst and having a car haunted by crappy ghosts. It’s funny and sad, shortish but packs a lot in, and is one of the better-written games of this year’s Comp.

The protagonist is on compassionate leave after the death of a relative. Two relatives. Those people, their relationship with the protagonist, is not discussed much directly, but there are two urns, and the protagonist was the executor, so parents seem likely. The ghost is someone else’s father, so this is a kind of displacement, a way of talking about its particular themes without being centrally about exploring a particular parent-child relationship.

Its prevailing mood is one that’s common in bereavement and depression:

I wondered when the passionate display of raw emotion was going to happen

it hasn’t happened yet

This basic subject-matter, grief and pointlessness and a struggle to feel authentic emotions about them, could very easily have been the subject-matter of an extremely navel-gazey sadtwine. Fiesta is not that, which allows it to treat its feels with more depth and nuance.

It’s a story about feeling you ought to be following a narrative script, but finding that the script doesn’t deliver the emotional or practical results that it ought to. I’m a big old sucker for this theme. Emotional isolation comes easy: there are several moments where the protagonist reaches out for connection and is laughed off, and that’s kind of the relationship between Man and World too.

So a story about people who don’t have stories, about the falseness of genre as a model of life. Here’s a thing I wrote about ghost stories in another context:

The Ghost concerns hidden crimes. The Victorians loved ghost stories in part, I think, because they grasped the vast potential for abuse that lurked beneath their controlled, hierarchical, private society. Ghosts, predominantly women and children, were guilt reified, atrocity brought to light. Ghost stories, via Wilkie Collins, are ancestors of the detective genre – and thus, too, the superhero genre. Like detectives and superheroes, the central purpose of the ghost is to satisfy the sense of cosmic justice, to right wrongs which would normally go hidden, ignored, forgotten, shrugged off.

That’s a correct reading of ghost stories. Dead Man’s Fiesta is a ghost anti-story. It’s a world where the supernatural exists, but doesn’t really give order or meaning to life. Ghosts speak in fragmentary speech, a jumble of the speech and thoughts they might have had in life; they appear to sometimes respond to certain things they cared about in life, but the possibility is raised that this is only in the eye of the beholder, that they’re wholly random.

Like a lot of ghost stories, the basic form of the plot is an investigation. But there’s not a whole lot to uncover, because the basic narrative assumptions about ghosts – that they have unfinished, usually traumatic business which can be resolved through uncovering their life and death – are in doubt. There’s no vast crime here, you mostly don’t find any intriguing clues, and there’s no dramatic personal story to unravel. The ghosts are fucking annoying rather than dangerous or horrifying. Steve’s life was unexceptional and mediocre and he knew it.

Steve, if he was anything, was a man weighed down by disappointment, a guy who wasn’t really loved or admired by anyone, a bore, a slob, enough of an asshole to alienate his wife and kids, a fucking Leave voter. He had some small grace notes, but they failed him, or he failed them: he loved his dog but it died, he found peace by the sea but never took the big trip to the Hebrides he dreamed of. When he got cancer he didn’t have a reason to fight it.

With different handling, this could have come off as a pat moral about how Steve never chased his dreams; but chasing your dreams isn’t really framed as a neat solution here. Steve’s dreams weren’t particularly great in the first place. Catharsis is possible but doesn’t necessarily fix anything; emotions are not things that get finally resolved by a denouement.

OK. Poems as pointers to theme: John Masefield’s Cargoes. Masefield was a popular poet in an era where that was no joke, and like a lot of poets of that age and style, he’s not real challenging. Cargoes is one of his better-known poems; I recognised it despite never having taken a particular interest in him. The central conceit of Cargoes is an old Romantic saw, the contrast between the fantastic exoticism of distant history and the disappointingly mundane reality of modernity: here, the gap between narrativised expectations and actual experience.

(This is labouring the point, but the title also does this: the fiesta branding in “Ford Fiesta” is there to suggest fun, exotic Hispanic parties; Dead Man’s Fiesta suggests portentous Western cinema and Día de Muertos macabre: but the mundane connotations of a Ford Fiesta are that it’s commonplace, cheap and about as glamorous as eczema.)

Fiesta doesn’t mock the old Romantic saw of finding solace in nature (which, by the time Masefield got to it, was generations old and had developed a tendency to lapse into trite sentimentality). It takes it seriously; it doesn’t see it as a complete or reliable response, though. The nature Fiesta presents is qualified: a caravan in a campground. The sea at Margate, where Londoners go for dirty weekends or to have their relatives institutionalised. When the action moves somewhere more wild and remote, it does do something, but it’s also not an answer.

It’s tempting to read the fortune-teller as the voice of hard reason, the character whose role is to tell it like it is, the ironic cynic who stares unflinchingly at the universe; and she does get some very didactic-feeling sequences. And fairly often the game feels, tonally, as though the universe agrees with her. Except that her main response to everything is to get blazed until she pukes and listen to Dub Side of the Moon, an extra-stoner version of an album whose opening track is basically the same mood and question over again, so it’s probably safe to say that her wisdom is not meant to be read as authoritative.

There’s significant variation in the story; you can explore different areas in the mid-game, and it seems as though there’s some difference in how your relationship with the fortune-teller pans out. It is not hugely transparent about which of its choices matter and how; there is, for instance, a ‘score’ at the end of the game (‘your score is 1 out of 3 ghosts’) but I’m not sure whether this is a joke or if it reflects important choices. There may be stuff buried a little deeper than I’ve found; I have not figured out the significance of the Sator square, or whether there’s something important in the restaurant menu.

(A quibble: the text says the car is a five-door 2008 Ford Fiesta, but the cover art and illustrations show something that much more closely resembles an 80s one, possibly a three-door. The 80s model is much closer, theme-wise, to its role in the story – a cheap beater, the sort of thing likely to be your first car around the time I was a teenager, but perhaps less so now. By 2008 Fiestas were looking more like a generic, sleek modern small car, which is less visually funny than the 80s shitty box on wheels. I know this seems really nitpicky, but it stood out to me and my understanding of car makes and models is at the ‘are the strange horseless chariots angry’ level.)

A strong piece. In the top tier of this year’s games, which apparently are all getting an until I think on it some more.

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1 Response to IF Comp 2018: Dead Man’s Fiesta

  1. Victor Gijsbers says:

    I didn’t get to play this during the competition, but I made up for that just now based on your recommendation. Glad I did. Very good review.

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