IF Comp 2019: Slugocalypse

sluggoSlugocalypse (Charlotte Blatchford, Twine) is a disaster story told with Twine. The cover pretty much gives you the setup: giant slugs are attacking small-town Britain. (Although that’s a duck, not an untitled goose. It’s a giant duck and you ride it.)

The writing is quite simple, to a degree that I suspect it’s aimed at children: plugging excerpts into a couple of reading-level analysis wotsits suggested that it’d be suitable for most eight- or nine-year-olds. There are lots of other indications: the bright, crisp, cheerful art style, the animal companion, and in particular how the plot and delivery are kept pretty low-stakes.

The basic difference between disaster fiction and apocalypse fiction is that disaster fiction reassures us that our society – its institutions, its values – is robust enough to weather extraordinary troubles, while apocalypse fiction warns of society’s failure. (The difference is largely about authorial attitude – optimist or pessimist, conservative or radical – and aside from this they’re very similar, which is why some stories shift between the two modes in different retellings.) Slugocalypse is clearly disaster fiction: if you don’t do anything, the military are going to sort to sort this out anyway. Its basic events are all standard genre beats – the Shopping Expedition, Seeking Answers at the Science Facility, the Escape to Sanctuary – but they’re very toned-down versions. It’s aiming to iterate a pretty dark genre’s tropes in a light, cheerful way, but it’s basically doing them straight, not as parody.

So, for instance, the standard apocalypse plot has a Shopping Expedition, a sequence where the heroes loot recently-abandoned stores to equip themselves for the dangers ahead. The trope appears in the first apocalyptic fiction I encountered, Day of the Triffids; probably the clearest-sighted expression of it is in 28 Days Later. Much of its appeal is that it satisfies a fantasy that every child has had at some point: what if I could just take whatever I wanted from the shop?* In Slugocalypse the shop is still inhabited; the newsagent says ‘just take what you need,’ but you ignore this and continue paying for things (at pocket-money prices). Bad and alarming things are happening, yes, but society hasn’t broken down very much at all. When you need stuff, you never loot for it; you go to a place, the original occupants are still around, bothered but not devastated; and they give you the stuff.

Similarly, you are never personally attacked by a giant slug. Your giant duck – specifically mentioned as a slug-eating animal – offers theoretical security, but you never have to actually fall back on this. In fact, the slugs don’t seem to eat people, or pose any threat beyond property damage. (The level of danger in the story seems a notch or two lower than the reading level, even.)

It’s not just that the events of the story are low-stakes – the manner of their recounting also feels low-key. The protagonist is AFGNCAAP-ish; they might be a child but they also might not, and this ambiguity makes the stakes lower, since the story never refers to family or loved ones (typically a major motivation in disasters), or very much to the protagonist’s pre-disaster life. Emotional responses are mentioned, but they never feel very urgent, and I think a lot of this is about delivery.

After some time, you reach the sea. As you walk down the leafy wooded valley path that leads to the beach, you can see the sea in between the trees.

It is a relief but also frightening as you have no idea if you and Daphne will be able to get across the sea.

The text uses relatively few contractions, and – apart from the cover art – no exclamation points. Some run-on sentences, like the final one above, would read more smoothly with slightly different construction. The pacing relies on quite a lot on shorthands, compressed descriptions of events that advance the plot quickly, and I felt that this sometimes came at the expense of giving the reader time for the situation to sink in. And I just generally think this is struggling a bit with managing shifts in tone. It’s possible, although this is very much a guess, that the author just hasn’t written in second-person much and isn’t fully comfortable with it yet; or it might just be that the lack of a defined protagonist is making it harder for the writing to develop personality. I dunno.

The plot has several distinct branches, and quite a lot of choices you make have ramifications later on, in ways that feel clearly-indicated. Finding what seems like the Best Ending – where you actively contribute to defeating the slugs, rather than just running away – will probably take a few tries, but the game is short enough that replaying isn’t really a hassle.

There are illustrations! There are only five of them counting the cover, though, which is a bit of an odd halfway-there number – not enough to make it feel like a consistently illustrated piece, and enough to make the fairly extensive sections without pictures feel a little neglected by contrast. And I think that there’s work that they could have done in support of the text – making the slugs seem more of a threat, for instance – which doesn’t really happen. They’re a good stylistic match with the story, though, and do a lot to establish and bring alive the basic feeling of the piece. And illustrating and doing sound for a game that you’re also writing is a huge effort, so I feel bad complaining about this at all!

Feels like this is a strong 4. I didn’t have a bad time at all, but I felt as though this was setting out to be charming, and it didn’t get there. (Full disclosure: I am not easily charmed.) Also it’s just a bit odd to do disaster fiction if you want to keep the stakes this low.

* Tangent: oddly enough, I’ve never really seen the looting-spree sequence executed to satisfaction in a game apocalypse. On the face of it, it does two things – a focus on resource-acquisition as reward, a sense of open action and release from normal constraints – that games are typically really good at. But on reflection, I suspect it doesn’t really line up with how resources tend to work in games. Either nothing in the store matters mechanically, and the looting spree is irrelevant; or only a couple of objects matter, and it’s just a matter of finding the inventory item; or resource-management really matters, in which case the game balance probably isn’t served by giving you unlimited access to a ton of resources.

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