Shufflecomp: Tea and Toast; A Summer’s Rose

Two more Shufflecomp songs:

The song “Tea and Toast” celebrates the way love comes through the ordinary moments of life.

The Shufflecomp game takes that basic idea and gives us a lovely little vignette: the player has a simple task of making morning tea for her sleeping lover, and as she does so, memories and fragments about their life together filter in. It’s a good match of form and concept. All the player is able to do is this mundane business of plugging in kettles and putting tea in a tea ball — it’s sufficiently straightforward that it barely counts as a puzzle, unless (I suppose) you’re totally unfamiliar with the mechanics of tea preparation. But in context, this simple object manipulation stuff becomes part of a ritual of love and affection.

The memories that the two women share are specific enough that they give a sense of specific personalities, and I felt affection for them both. Here and there, there are also implications that there are sad and difficult things as well as charming and happy things in both of their lives. But they’re partners and they work together through these things.

*

A Summer’s Rose is based on the ballad of Tam Lin. I love this story. I loved it when Pamela Dean told it and I loved it when Steeleye Span sang it and I loved it when Diana Wynne Jones covered it, though possibly my very favorite rendition is Elizabeth Marie Pope’s variation in The Perilous Gard. It is a story in which the strong forces are women: the Queen of Faery who wants to sacrifice Tam Lin as a tithe to Hell, and the headstrong Janet who rescues him by dragging him down from his horse despite the Queen’s magic changing him into different shapes. Though the catch-a-shape-shifter-and-hold-on trope has appeared elsewhere, all the way back to the Odyssey, I think it works particularly well in Tam Lin as a metaphor for holding on to someone you love even when they turn out to have aspects that surprise you.

At the heart of the story there’s an ambiguity. In some versions, Tam Lin rapes Janet (“he asked no leave of her / as she lay on the ground”). In some, she has been warned that there’s a man at Carterhaugh who likes to seduce young women, and she goes there anyway — perhaps because as the daughter of an earl she’s so spoiled that she thinks the usual rules don’t apply to herself, perhaps because she decides she’d like to try being seduced. In others still, their meeting is accidental love at first sight. And then afterward: sometimes Janet stands up defiantly to her father when her pregnancy is discovered, and sometimes she seems more afraid, desperate, or sneaky.

So you can cast this as a really really grim story about how Janet finds herself unwillingly pregnant out of wedlock and then does what it takes to marry the father because even a rapist husband is preferable to the ostracism and poverty that she and her child would otherwise face. Or you can cast it as a straight-up love story where she falls for him and saves him against all odds. Or you can make it some other variation somewhere in the middle, where Tam Lin is essentially a decent guy, but has fallen under the sway of the Faery Queen through weakness or a Faustian bargain. Or Janet herself might be a woman who starts out spoiled by wealth but finds that there are some problems even riches can’t resolve, and has to grow up enough to deal with them.

However you turn it over, it’s about a young woman who demonstrates considerable agency around her own sexuality, reproduction, and marriage, in a culture where that was not easy or common. When she wins the day, it’s not because a prince saved her or a fairy godmother helped her out. It’s because she went to the crossroads alone, unarmed, at midnight, while pregnant, and did what needed to be done.

Tam Lin makes a refreshing change from the numerous Snow White / Cinderella / Vasilisa stories where the heroine is rewarded mainly for cheerfully accepting years of horrific abuse — and then only because she also happens to be incredibly gorgeous. That is a messed up moral to be passing on to young girls, that female goodness consists of a combination of smiling passivity and physical beauty, or that it’s wrong for a woman to value her own well-being ahead of other people’s demands however unreasonable those demands might become.

I much prefer ambiguous, rough-edged, brave and active Janet for a heroine.

Anyway! A Summer’s Rose presents the events of Tam Lin as told by Janet to her child, and most of the options in the game revolve around what you want her to tell the child exactly. Whatever you decide, she confesses to the kid that she was considering using an abortifacient herb, which strikes me as pretty heavy information to lay on a young child. But you can also decide how much to emphasize that aspect, and tell the story more or less playfully.

The result is a retelling that doesn’t shy away from the problematic (and to my mind interesting) core of the ballad. A Summer’s Rose often seems sweet on the surface, but contains clues that Janet’s choices came from a place of deep desperation.

7 thoughts on “Shufflecomp: Tea and Toast; A Summer’s Rose

  1. The ballad of Tam Lin has intrigued me, too, ever since I first read it. (I guess Terry Pratchett’s “Lords and Ladies” has taken some inspiration from it too, what with Magrat having to rescue her fiancĂ© from the Elf Queen, and even mentioning that there’s an old song about another maiden doing the same thing for her man.) I’ll probably check this game out when I have the time.

  2. Pingback: Shufflecomp: More, Cryptophasia | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  3. Now that the veil of pseudonymity has been lifted, I can say: I’m glad you liked my game. (Paraphrased: squee.) Source code is available here. I’d like to be able to work on a post-comp version, with more memories, which will hopefully increase replay value (so there’ll be less overlap on the memories triggered on each playthrough).

    Did you make toast? It’s not entirely clear from the review. Another plan for the post-comp release is plates and possibly butter or jam.

    From your More review: “Not a trick that would work across the duration of a long game….” Ooh, a challenge!

      • It’s something of a mild optimization puzzle. In my ideal world players would play twice to get it down, and on the replay they would notice all the subtle ways that the memories vary in response to what they’re doing (in the ideal world the memories may vary more in more subtle ways in response to what the player is doing). But I don’t know if this actually provides enough of a hook to spur replay.

      • Ah, I see. Whatever state I ended up in, it didn’t feel to me like I’d failed, and it didn’t occur to me to play again. (I probably didn’t reach the ideal state.)

      • If the toast is done you get an extra sentence in the ending. I didn’t especially want to make players feel like they failed if they didn’t get everything done — that would make both me and Lily seem obnoxious.

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