Alexandra Leaving

There’s a review of Bronze on IFDB that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

After hearing so much about Bronze, I was expecting a very satisfying and pleasurable experience. This was not the case for me… I came away feeling like the entire experience was rather hollow and somewhat forced… Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful love story, but in this version of the tale, I felt that the protagonist’s relationship with the Beast lacked very much warmth or deep love.

This is a challenging review for me. Obviously, I’m sorry the reviewer didn’t have a good time. It’s possible that I could or should have done something to frame the presentation of the game to make clear that it was not going to be a traditional fairy tale happy-ending romance. (The closest thing to that I’ve ever written is Pytho’s Mask, which, not coincidentally, has some pretty shallow characters and a heavily gender-bound treatment of love; even so some subversive elements snuck in before the end.) Perhaps I seemed to offer something the game was never going to deliver — and, for what it’s worth, I do think that players have the right to want specific things from their games. Indeed, if the player doesn’t want something, she’s not likely to play for long.

However. The unromantic aspect of the game is not a mistake. On the contrary, it is the summation of the effort and thought that went into its creation.

I’ve always liked the Beauty and the Beast story; as a kid I read and reread Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. The independent, book-obsessed heroine appealed to me. I liked the idea that it was an ugly duckling story for her as much as for the Beast; McKinley’s Beauty is ironically named and doesn’t think of herself as conventionally attractive, finds fancy dresses uncomfortable, and would prefer to be with her horse or curled up in a library.

But when I set out to write a Beauty and the Beast story, I found I couldn’t write it the same way. When I stripped away the enchantments and the conventional stapled-on moral about Hidden Beauty and thought about these characters as people, the story changed on me. What kind of man would trap a woman, threaten her family, and harass her incessantly to marry him (and, in some versions of the story, subject her to rages and abusive outbursts)? What kind of woman would honor a promise to stay with such a man, let alone fall in love with him? What kind of father would let his daughter take his place in such a situation? Even if the Beast eventually agrees to let Beauty revisit her family, the circumstances suggested that everyone involved must be deeply broken.

So that’s what I wrote. The heroine comes from a family that doesn’t respect or value her. She is naive. She has no basis of comparison for the Beast. She pities him and in her loneliness she twists that into a kind of love, but in the end she has to confront the reality, which is that the Beast is a tyrant and a serial rapist, fundamentally warped by his ability to compel everyone around him to do his will. The privileged assumptions underlying that haven’t gone away even though he has become sufficiently remorseful to try to make things right via suicide. And he remains in many ways more psychologically attached to his last victim than he is to the current player character.

So no, these people aren’t in love — not in a happy-ending way, anyhow. They’re drawn together more by their flaws than by their strengths. Their levels of experience, their power and maturity, are terribly mismatched. The most we can say is that the player character wants to be in love with the Beast. The story makes it hard for her. It’s up to the player whether the protagonist decides to double down on this and to act as though she is in love, after learning everything she learns.

It’s not really what I initially intended to write, but the process of creation changed my mind about what I wanted to say.

I generally think that’s a good thing when it happens. More than that, I’d say that for me a lot of the point of creative processes and storytelling in general is as a way of thinking about some issue. You do the work so you can find out what you think. Sometimes it ends in aporia. Floatpoint is about a question I never did answer to my complete satisfaction, which may explain why its endings fail to commit absolutely to any ideal outcome.

I’ve been thinking about all this stuff again recently for two reasons. One is that I recently replayed Bronze — I was testing its performance on iPad Frotz and wound up going through the whole thing again. (It’s always embarrassing when you realize you’ve forgotten how to solve your own puzzles.) The other is that I’m (re-)revising the end of my current WIP. Like Bronze, it was conceived originally as a puzzle game with a light and perky narrative arc. Like Bronze, it’s changed in the telling, to the point where now I’m listening to Leonard Cohen and writing take 7 or 8 of the denouement. It’s an obnoxiously emo process. I’m fighting the damn thing because the integrity of the story demands a clearer, a more assured resolution than I want to give it. It needs to finish on a note I’m having a hard time reaching, not as a matter of technique, but as a matter of personal assent.

It seems the three-body problem here is in fact a four-body problem: what the player wants, what the characters want, what the author wants, what the work itself demands. If I get this problem right, no one will notice it ever existed. But how likely is that?

13 thoughts on “Alexandra Leaving

  1. “What kind of man would trap a woman, threaten her family, and harass her incessantly to marry him?”
    A man who’s been alone for so long he is both desperate for human contact and doesn’t really align himself with social norms anymore. It is only after he’s been with Beauty for a while that he starts behaving again as a human, psychologically speaking.
    The demand of commitment from the female can also be a desire for a maternal figure (A tantrum-throwing creature that doesn’t behave well socially and lives alone with all its toys) that hints to either a regression to childhood or an upbringing that never left childhood.

      • I think it’s meant to put forth a potential explanation rather than an excuse. The original question was rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to that question that differ from the direction Emily chose to take.

  2. I remember being startled by Bronze and also really liking it, although I don’t remember many of the details right now. But frankly, Beauty and the Beast isn’t a beautiful love story, unless by ‘beautiful love story’ one means ‘story that caters to a lot of feminine romantic fantasies’. And I say this as a huge, raging fan of Beauty and the Beast storylines.

    Anyhow, thanks for a good post.

  3. Quasi off-topic, but this reminded me…
    >I recently replayed Bronze — I was testing its performance on iPad Frotz and wound up going through the whole thing again.

    I played through most of Bronze on Parchment, but performance got worse and worse the further in I got. I found the two easier endings, but abandoned playing it even though I had a fair guess (and I think, all the right tools) as to how to get the better endings. Parchment seemed to work fine for the handful of other games I tried.

    Thought I’d mention that here, on the off-chance that there is something trivial that can be done to rectify that.

    I did quite enjoy Bronze, though!

  4. I’m not sure there is such a thing as the story of Beauty and the Beast (or 425c, if you’re into that kind of thing). There are many stories of Beauty and the Beast, and it seems as if the story that this reviewer wanted to hear was not the one that you wanted to (or could) tell. Clearly, different people have different reactions to Bronze: what Diddlescatter found “hollow,” I happen to find resonant, and these may be two equally valid ways of describing the same bell.

    I do think Diddlescatter has a good point about the expectations set up by the phrase “fractured fairy tale.” To me, this description suggests a lighter and more humorous work than Bronze (or Alabaster, or Indigo; I haven’t played Glass yet).* The fairy tale in Bronze is not so much fractured as carefully taken apart (I shrink from using the word deconstructed) and put back together into something rich and strange. I don’t see how “fractured fairy tale” would lead anyone to expect a beautiful love story, but on the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily lead one to expect the sort of game in which the narrator has to remind the player that the PC doesn’t have the moral authority to forgive the NPC for what he has done to those who came before her.

    *Especially if TVTropes is correct in identifying Rocky and Bullwinkle as the locus classicus.

  5. Coming from the social gaming space, I remember the day when I threw in the towel and consciously chose virality (spamming) over better player experience. Part of the problem is that… if all the other games are tweeting and posting game activities everywhere, not doing so means falling back in the race. The funny thing is that I do recall myself making a similar comment about joining the dark side to my game studio partner that day.

    By the way, I loved the story in Bronze. To me, the subtitle “A Fractured Fairy Tale” had properly prepared me for a dark or even tragic story. The twist of “father who gives up his daughter to the Beast for his freedom” also sets a strong tone from the get go. The story unraveled more like a discovery of how a seemingly perfect couple (from the original story tale) had been living their lives while covering up many ugliness and wrong-doings. Belle’s character does go through a character arc that indifference to genuinely caring for Beast – and that seems more real to me from than some sort of happy and romantic ending, considering how the story begins. (Maybe because I’m often a cynic/realist in real life)

  6. Decided to post here because I’m the one who put “Bronze” on that TV Tropes page.

    Also, I love “Bronze”. I didn’t come into it expecting a love story. I can’t even remember what I expected. What I got, however, was one of your best games, as far as I’m concerned.

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