IF Comp 2019: The Sweetest Honey

sweetesthoney.pngThe Sweetest Honey (Mauro Couto, Twine) is a choice-based story about depression and fear, originally written for a Spanish-language game jam and translated into English. Anima, the protagonist, is middle-aged and divorced; his ex-wife dislikes him and his son openly loathes him; his childhood friend Beto has recently died and his father is in a nursing home; he can barely work up the will to get to his meaningless job.

The premise is that Anima, normally held back by his debilitating anxiety about death, discovers that he cannot die. That premise suggests a certain kind of comedy / redemption low-fantasy plot, something in the vein of Groundhog Day or Liar, Liar, and The Sweetest Honey totally doesn’t go in that direction at all.

In fact, in retrospect it’s a bit hard to remember what direction it goes in, because it very much front-loads the sad-sack setup. What it in fact does is subvert the formula: the expectation that when the magical gift/curse is understood, it’s transformative. The second act should be all about exploring what the power makes possible, about how the old rules fall away. But the old rules, here, stay robustly in place. Anima’s wife and kid still dislike him, his job is still bad. (As with a lot of choice-based games about suffering, your choices don’t matter a whole lot.) The transformative difference is that he is no longer debilitated by anxiety about death, and that this allows him to, finally, enjoy something for itself. Nothing else, for now, has changed. For a story about depression, I think this is a good approach! But I don’t think that the rest of the work is set up to support this moment very well.

Anima isn’t an attractive protagonist. And he doesn’t need to be, not entirely. He mostly seems to want to constrain his father; he isn’t very reflective about why his ex-wife and son don’t like him much; his memories of his dead friend mostly boil down to feelings of inadequacy. It would have gone a long way towards making him sympathetic if we had seen less of him feeling emasculated by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend and more of him having some kind of positive effect on another person’s life, past or present.

The presentation, too, could use some work – even breaking up the paragraphs a little would make this a lot more pleasant to read. And the translation is not all the way there; the narrative is mostly clear throughout, but there are many small errors that add up to images which can be hard to feel certain about:

He gets close to a fridge, which seems to react to this touch and it shakes violently. He pulls a jar of honey and butter, and he prepares his meal in the bar. He grabs a loaf of bread and a butter knife, sits down and spreads some honey in the piece of cutlery.

I could cover this in red ink, but just for efficiency’s sake, I’m just gonna just fix it:

He goes to the fridge, which seems to react to his touch and shakes violently. He pulls out butter and a jar of honey, and prepares his meal at the bar. He grabs a loaf of bread and a butter knife, sits down and scoops honey onto the piece of cutlery.

This is minimal editing just to render it as more-or-less idiomatic English, without changing anything for the sake of style. So, this is not a matter of a couple of slip-ups here and there: it’s a serious issue throughout. And this is a work where the focus is much more heavily on the writing than on player action: if this story was going to shine, it would have to shine through prose. 3.

(Highly tangential sidebar: I am often a little uncertain when second-language works talk about ‘traduction’. In English, traduction is a specific, relatively obscure term meant to indicate a simple conversion of the words and sentences of one language to another. Translation is the standard term, and can be used for any conversion of language – but when contrasted to traduction, it implies a more artistic, subjective and laborious exercise which attempts to identify and capture the essential sense of the original. Emily Wilson’s Odyssey is a translation; the manual for assembling your bookshelves is a traduction. Traduction can be slightly pejorative – a parallel use means to slander, to malign.

But in Romance languages traduction / traducción / traduzione / traducere forms the standard verb and noun. So I’m never sure whether ‘traduction’ as used by a Romance-language writer is intended to carry the sense of ‘look, it’s just a quick-and-dirty, minimal-fuss, word-for-word conversion, not a comprehensive professional effort, I know it doesn’t show me in my best light, don’t @ me’, or if it’s just a case of people preferring to use words that seem familiar. In this case, I suspect the latter. But still.)

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