Monday, 6 October 2014

Following Me by Tia Orisney

In most circumstances it is likely to be lazy of a reviewer to summarise the content of a game they are about to review by reprinting its blurb, but I think the blurb for Tia Orisney’s Following Me already does the best possible job for the purposes of this review, and handily has built into it the limits of advance information the author would like players to know about the game:

"Two women take a wrong turn in the woods and make a gruesome discovery. They seek help from a mysterious stranger and are dragged into a vicious trap that they will be lucky to survive.

Intended for mature audiences, contains violence and language."

The story is delivered in a CYOA format characterised by long, unbroken passages of text studded with infrequent moments of choice and ‘Continue’ buttons, and it’s a substantial read. Tia’s long format prose within the context of this kind of game was on display in two entries into last year’s IFComp, of which I fully played one, “Blood on the Heather", a wacky Buffy The Vampire Slayer style adventure which wavered for me between being compelling and tiring. I remember the drive of much of the prose though, about which I wrote:

“I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief.”

This year's Following Me is a serious snowbound thriller which threatens to get very heavy, and it’s a stronger piece. There's still the distraction of some loose proofreading dragging on the author's obvious storytelling skills, but the plot is tight, the whole thing is quite tense and the construction dense enough to push through problems. Psychologically it stays truthful to the headspace of Kat, the protagonist, and her moment to moment bursts of thought. This kind of thing also happens to be the area of writing I'm most interested in in fiction. Occasionally I felt it was a spot off here – it's not that people don't have the odd bizarre and ostensibly comical thought during times of real peril, but I don't believe they narrate it to themselves at the time using the language they’d use to narrate it to someone else later. IE They have no time for a longer or circumspect view because they’re in immediate peril. Kat did this a bit too often for my taste. This is not a big nitpick in a piece which is psychologically on target most of the time.

The physical manifestation of the bad guys is finally handled, too, the way Kat observes their little tics and physical dynamics. How they say things, where they look when they are delivering particular threats, how they handle their rifles and how the older man handles his cane – the details accumulate to vividly convey the repugnance of their characters, and the experience of being a woman who has become their prisoner.

(There are spoilers in this last paragraph.) People in interactive fiction theory are always on about ‘reflective choices’ these days, but at such times they are usually talking about games offering a far greater roster of choices to the player than Following Me does. And there is a danger that I, in using a term like ‘far greater’, am connoting that the choices in this game are not great. Actually, they both are and aren’t. The choices offered always read as weighty alternatives: For instance, you're in immediate danger of being shot you've only two escape routes to choose from. Or, you gain the upper hand for a moment – are you prepared to kill? Such choices caused me a lot of player deliberation. But the ultimate construction of the game is such that most roads eventually lead to Rome. The choices create different vectors to get there, shepherding the prose in a broad way that reflects a choice you probably made heavily, and so whose outcome you are predisposed to invest in. Because Following Me is a thriller with life-and-death stakes for the characters, I think this scheme worked well for this game.

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