IF Comp 2019: Faerethia

 

faerethiaFaerethia (Peter Eastman, Twine) is a piece about utopia.

Let’s begin with that title. That title is a lot, my dudes. That title is something that a late-Victorian weirdo called E. Stratford Pillwater would have dreamed up for his utopian novel that is 80% about how many giant animals he shot on his expedition beneath the surface of the moon, 15% about irrigation management law, and 5% about how the eight-foot-tall moon dommes have really eugenic tits. I would never have the guts to commit to a title as extra as Faerethia and I salute the guy who did.

The narrative is split into a bunch of different sections: one in which the player wakes in and explores the uploaded-ass paradise of Faerethia; flashback memories, which might or might not be about the same person; context about the surrounding history; minigames; dialogues. The juxtapositions are well-constructed: in terms of delivery it feels cohesive, and it holds the attention in what is essentially not a piece hugely concerned with player choice.

One fact must be clearly understood from the outset: Faerethia is a real place. It must not be interpreted as a religious afterlife, nor as a lost state of innocence, nor any similar fable. If it be paradise, it is nonetheless a paradise within the bounds of our physical world, not beyond them. Neither should it be interpreted in any metaphorical sense, as symbolic of something different than itself.

critics (scribbling furiously): pfft, cool story bro

As far as its insights into politics, economics and social change go… it’s not particularly enlightening. If you even slightly follow politics on Twitter than you’ve already seen these takes, and at least one more level of astute counter-takes beyond that.

The section about being in Faerethia is not really what interests me about utopian fiction. A lot of the appeal of utopian fiction is getting to see an imagined version of how this society might function, of what it might be like to inhabit it; but there’s an equally substantial tradition where the point of the utopia is more about the spiritual condition of its inhabitants, and I think that’s where we’re going here. In IF terms, the main issue with this is that what we’re shown here is the introduction to the society, which bears a suspiciously close resemblance to a You Wake Up With Amnesia game opening:

In the beginning it is only sensation. It means nothing. There is nothing for it to mean.

Later you start to recognize patterns in the sensation. There is darkness and there is light. There is coherence, extended domains that produce consistent impressions, and divisions where the perception alters. There is stasis and there is movement. There is change, which implies the existence of time.

So this is actually a better-written Wake Up With Amnesia opening than the median, and it is also rendered in an attractive font, which does help. But it is still very recognisably a Wake Up With Amnesia opening and the sequences which follow confirms that in spades. There is a Plato’s Cave bit, which is obligatory in any philosophy-related IF; there’s a blandly pleasant pastoral sequence. It does not really posit Faerethia as an inhabited place or functioning society so much as a feeling.

I dunno. I felt, constantly, that I was being fed recycled ideas. I’ve seen several games that have a specific bit in them that’s ‘what if a computer invented paradise, and it was a cute little small town or 1950s suburb?’ Having opened with a disclaimer that this is absolutely not a religious analogy, it introduces a bunch of spiritualist concepts and closes with a dialogue which posits that subjective time is an illusion and therefore some version of us is already in Faerethia, and happy. The delivery isn’t bad, but I’d have preferred it as an eight-hour Alan Watts chillstep mix.

There are some Big Question elements in here, which initially seem as though they’re being portrayed as parody.

Welcome to Personal Paradise Designer Pro™! You are almost ready to begin enjoying your own Personal Paradise™! Your psychological profile, social interaction history, and aesthetic preference survey have already been analysed. We just need to ask a few more questions to complete your design.

What is the one thing you long for above all others?

Love
Peace
Fulfillment

So this is purports to be delivered with irony, but it asks the player to take the question seriously, and it will, later on in the text, assume it has been answered seriously. It is very difficult, in a menu-based system, to ask a Deep Question like this in a way that respects the reader. Most people want varied and incommensurate things, and if they can narrow down their Most Longed-For Thing, it will probably be a lot less vague than this. ‘Love’ and ‘peace’ and ‘fulfillment’ are not generic, fungible things, and when they’re presented as if they are, I expect some trickery. This is a level of choice that’d be fine for a silly personality quiz – and if this bit was the joke that the initial framing suggests, that’d be OK. To put it another way: the game’s rhetoric shifts between joke and earnestness in a way that didn’t really bring me along.

Again, here are the closing lines:

“No, you’re right. It isn’t easy. So we all just do our best. Be happy as much as you can. And for the rest, there’s Faerethia. Remember that even if you’re not happy right now, somewhere else in some other time there’s another version of you who is happy. And that other time and place is just as real as this one.”

“True. Thanks for reminding me. We will all be happy in the future. In Faerethia.”

“In Faerethia.”

With its beatific agreement between the speakers, its invocation of an immanent paradise and a spiritual double, its call-and-response closing, this is unmistakably a piece of religious writing; but I had lingering suspicions that this was meant as irony, that the ultimate point is to give the Nerd Rapture the side-eye. I suspect that this isn’t it, that the earnestness is in fact earnest; but I had a lot of doubts.

There is a good plot twist moment in here. It’s not a radical plot twist – I can absolutely see this happening in a M. Night Shyamalan plot or a mid-century SF story – but it lands it as a twist, which impressed me.

So I think this was a piece which demonstrated a very solid command of a lot of skills – the construction of prose, attractively-presented text, the care and management of narrative delivery – without having very interesting ideas. (This would be less of a problem if it wasn’t doing utopian fiction, which is by nature a genre of ideas.) I think it grasps, to a pretty strong degree, how to make choices that work to move a narrative along and hold a player’s attention, while really not succeeding at the design of choices which make the player feel as though their input is respected. I don’t know how one would accomplish that in this context, to be fair! Persuasive games are hard.

This is weird, because it feels like I’ve spent a lot of this comp being mostly grumpy at failings of user interface design and prose composition! But here’s a piece which is pretty squared-away at UI and prose, and demonstrates how that isn’t sufficient for a good IF piece. 5.

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