IF Comp 2019: The good people

pseudavidThe good people (Pseudavid, Twine) is a piece of horror, or of horrific magic realism. A couple, Alice and Daniel, take their first holiday together; they are from different cultures, and the relationship is coming under its first real strain. They are visiting a ruin, a village once inhabited by Daniel’s ancestors, that was flooded by the construction of a reservoir and newly revealed by global warming-induced drought – and this has awoken a supernatural horror.

This is a game with a very distinctive look: a lot of work has gone into the customisation and it does not let you forget it. The text changes colour, size, face, position, layout; there are pauses and fancy transitions. But it’s also aiming for a clean, minimalist aesthetic, and the two are a little at cross-purposes. Ultimately, it’s a little too fiddly, a little too showy; it’s distracting. A lot of these effects would be good, taken individually. But there are too many of them, as though the game wants you to pay attention to the CSS rather than the prose. Each individual page of text feels intentional, as though it has been individually laid out, which is incredible! But it also feels as if it’s been laid out by a designer who really wants to make you spend focus on the layout more than the text.

There are three major things going on in the story – exploration and family memory of a place twice-changed by the anthropocene; an ongoing, fraught conversation between Daniel and his girlfriend Alice; and a supernatural horror. I do not always get how these bits fit together, and their relative pacing felt a bit off. The depiction of a tense, awkward relationship – which nonetheless involves genuine affection – is good, but it feels as though it goes on for too long without introducing much new.

This is a setting which should be amazing: ruins are fascinating anyway, but formerly-flooded ruins, with a family connection, ought to be deeply evocative stuff. But setting is actually the least memorable part of this. The attention always seems to be elsewhere; or maybe the point of the story is that this place which was meant to be incredibly resonant is, in fact, just a washed-out backdrop to more pressing concerns. I don’t know. But I should have loved this setting and it didn’t hit me. The game is carefully non-specific about where it is set – there are definite hints of Central America, but also elements which suggested (to me, at least) Capel Celyn – and I suspect that this studied ambiguity made the job harder.

Some of the horror elements work and some fall entirely flat. The bit with the skull on the stick is a complete dud; the shifting, obscured name is effective. The image of a half-crawling thing that only you can see or hear, horribly present in a regular life, is genuinely creepy: but then the thing’s actual dialogue doesn’t stick the landing. What should feel like rapidly escalating tension as Things Go Wrong isn’t distinct enough from narrative pace of the early game. Horror, like comedy, is a mode that’s entirely reliant on the fragile process of developing a particular feeling, that’s reliant not just on good moments but on the tightness of the entire piece; and this is patchy.

I felt as though I spent a lot of time with Alice and Daniel, but I did not find much to like about either of them; and that’s a difficulty, in a game whose tonal palette is almost entirely composed of different varieties of tension, guilt and foreboding. I found less to dislike about Alice than Daniel, but not enough positive to feel a wrench when offered a chance to save myself by sacrificing her. I don’t feel as though they moved beyond an assembly of templates – the guy who’s uncomfortable with commitment, the media-industry millennial who can’t stop hustling – to become people I cared about.

And, OK, this kind of squarely fits into a subgenre of political horror in which the Supernatural Horror Thing exists alongside the Social Horror Thing and is a reflection on it, without quite being causally linked or a tidy analogy. The Good People are about selfishness, about the willingness to sacrifice other people – maybe a lot of other people – to save yourself; about how this is the moral cowardice that underpins capitalism and ultimately diminishes and damns everyone; about living on the downward arc of an age that sacrificed too much for promises it could not sustain. This is not on-the-nose stuff; if anything, it’s buried a little too deeply.

(The Good People is a fairy name; I wanted the Good People to be about representations of elves as half-forgotten indigenes, and I have deleted a long tangent about elf-shot and long barrows and my Tolkien hobby-horses, because it is in no way unsupported by the text.)

So. This is a work which is not like anything else, and which aims to approach IF as literature, both of which I appreciate a hell of a lot. It is aiming at difficult and interesting things, things which sometimes are a little beyond its grasp. My general feeling is that it would have benefited massively from an editor – not an IF-style testing process, an actual editor. As it is, there is not enough flesh on this thing; it is a technically polished work, but as a story it feels like an early draft. Solidly in the 6-7 range.

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1 Response to IF Comp 2019: The good people

  1. Pseudavid says:

    Thanks for the review, Sam! Such a thoughtful review was one of the high points of the comp for me.

    You mention some difficulties you found. Those were intentional (mostly!). Even well-written games default to a kind of writing without literary difficulty of any kind, and the same happens mostly with IF. So, just for the sake of being a contrarian, I wanted to write a slightly difficult (in literary terms) story. Of course, I expect that such difficulty somehow matches the themes. But, on the other hand, I can’t complain too much if players didn’t care much for these complications.

    Some things you’ve said expressed my thoughts more eloquently than myself! Authors often write because they have a tangle of ideas and feelings and they can’t express it in any other way than writing the story; good criticism is often better at untangling that than authors themselves. So thank you.

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