IF Comp 2011: The Guardian

The Guardian is a fantasy story with very little puzzle content and lyrical writing, taking probably less than half an hour to play through completely. Feelies and music are included.

The Guardian is very light on puzzles — as the instructions point out, you don’t really need to do more than examine, take, and drop objects in order to complete the whole thing. There’s very little to do other than what the author intends — there’s a fair bit of missing scenery, for instance. But simulation and puzzle solving aren’t the main point of The Guardian. Instead, it’s using the form of IF to unfold a melancholy story about lost love and lost civilizations.

The writing is a kind that draws attention to itself: it’s self-consciously lyrical, with complex sentence structures and archaic phrasings. Sometimes this works pretty well, and other times it tips over into excess, piling on too many adjectives and adverbs, not setting the emphasis quite in the right place to establish player expectations, or tangling itself up in a mess of dependent clauses. Details after the spoiler space.

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Here’s an example of the kind of prose issue I’m talking about:

Crypt
Large holes cut in the upper parts of the walls let light in, illuminating carvings all around the marble walls at eye level which intricately illustrate what must be the lives of the family interred here.

An intricately embossed heavy blue door is solidly fastened to the crypt’s face. The embossing is of a lion, rampant sinister, roaring defiance to the world.

The repeat of “intricately” is awkward; “solidly” is then the second -ly word in the sentence. If you read the sentence aloud, it has a slow, stumbling cadence.

The first part of the description is better, but it still uses more words than it really needs to, and hits the l and i assonances hard. “Intricately illustrate what must be the lives…” sets me up to expect a detailed description of people doing things if I examine the carvings, when in fact they turn out to be writing and (maybe?) busts of individuals.

Finally, I think I would name the carvings first in the sentence and then say that they were illuminated by light from the holes, rather than vice versa, so as to put the emphasis of the description on the items that are most significant.

The text is also heavily larded throughout with similes and superlatives — many things are described as “so [quality] that [result].” (This put me irreverently in mind of PataNoir a few times.) I have nothing against a good simile now and then, but the construction is so very prevalent — in a text with a fairly small amount of prose overall — that it gets a little bit distracting. And a lot of the time that connective tissue isn’t strictly necessary; one could leave out the “so [quality] that [result]” and just present the consequence as a fact, leading the reader to fill in the gap.

It is very dry here, so dry the thick ceramic the way is paved with has been bleached bone white, and begun to crumble from the constant weathering.

Hawthorne has a marked preference for fitting a lot of ideas into a single sentence using hypotactic constructions. Sometimes that works, but sometimes, as here, it requires the syntax to execute some tight turns that may lose the reader, especially since there are two passive constructions in a row (“is paved with”, “has been bleached”). In this case, it would be clearer to break this up into several sentences. I myself get annoyed when an editor hacks apart a cadence I particularly liked in order to make my text simpler, so I’m really not on a crusade to lower the reading level of every bit of prose I find. But in this case, and in several others in The Guardian, I felt Hawthorne was pursuing complexity for its own sake, not because the results were especially euphonious or evocative.

Or again, with multiple parallel and dependent clauses glued together, it’s possible to lose track of what the subject is:

I stared upwards for a moment, and remembered a night, long ago, where the stars hanging above had watched a pair dancing below, perfectly different, but perfectly matched, and smiled.

Who smiled? The narrator or the stars?

Or here’s a bit of verbal experimentation that crosses the line from cool into undisciplined:

Before me to the north is a wide open plain; across it I see mountains in the distance, their white-tipped teeth rooting dark clouds hanging far above.

“white-tipped teeth rooting dark clouds hanging far above” accomplishes a couple of good things. It does lead the eye — we can imagine the protagonist looking out across the plain and then up towards the sky in a coherent camera sweep. (J. Robinson Wheeler’s description article in the IF Theory Reader talks about why this kind of technique is effective, incidentally.) The image of teeth for the mountains is visceral and implies additional things — that they’re jagged and a bit threatening — that the prose does not have to explicitly spell out. Then we get a nice visual white/dark contrast between mountains and clouds.

What I’m not crazy about is the way the metaphor shifts multiple times in the course of a single phrase. First the mountains are teeth, then they’re roots; first the clouds are rooted like trees, then they’re hanging suspended. It’s just a bit too much.

Anyway, this is criticism at a very fiddly level, and the raw quantity of feedback shouldn’t be taken as a sign that I think the text is crap. It’s not. There’s skill behind this work. But The Guardian could really use someone the author trusts to go through and tighten, tighten, tighten. Writing at this level of diction needs a fantastic amount of discipline and editing in order to achieve its aims.

On the positive side, I really liked the sense of scope in this piece — the impression that game locations might be many miles across, that I was going on a massive journey. I would have welcomed the chance to see more details about the abandoned city and the broken lodge, to get more of a taste of the lives of the people who have gone before, but even what is there, spare as it is, is evocative and memorable.

More broadly, I don’t quite agree with Yoon Ha Lee’s criticism that this gains nothing from being IF rather than static fiction. On the contrary, I think something subtle and moderately effective happens because both player and protagonist are struggling onward with only a partial comprehension of their situation: it suggests the dogged faithfulness of the guardian. Similarly, we gain from the experience of slogging across the big desert a sense of distance and time that I think would be harder to convey in static prose.

And The Guardian needs those features, because the essential story it has to tell is very simple and very much oriented on backstory, with only pinpricks of detail about who the protagonists are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. There are some fundamental things I came away unsure about. For instance, what motivated whoever-it-was to steal a stone from Sophu’s tomb in the first place? Is that what somehow brought down the city? What happened here, anyway? Maybe I missed something, in which case I’d be happy to hear about it in comments.

Even with those ambiguities and loose threads, and the prose issues I mentioned, I liked this piece, and I suspect it will stick with me. It’s unambitious in certain directions (mostly, the complexity of the coding and resultant interactivity), but that supports a certain aesthetic that suits the spare, melancholy atmosphere of the story.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Guardian

  1. I enjoyed the aesthetic. In fact, I would argue that the railroad-slim travel options suit, rather than detract from, the overall mood: vast, mysterious, vaguely mythic. A lonely, possibly postapocalyptic feel.

    The only problem I had with the gameplay/lack of complexity is that there were just enough options that didn’t really go anywhere (the brambles, the marble crumbs combined with the flashback of traders hawking iron for marble) that I could never get a clear ‘just walk down the path and enjoy the story.’ Instead, I felt like maybe there was something missing in each room, something I needed to do. I’d wish for either more coded complexity/puzzles, or just ridding the thing of all the extraneous items/forks in the path.

  2. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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