IF Comp 2012: Spiral (Justin Morgan)

Spiral is a surreal, afterlife-themed, parser-based puzzle game. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. The fact that I am reviewing it at all indicates that there are beta-testers.

Spiral does a bunch of things that are not terribly easy. There are two protagonists, and you can swap between them at will. Each has memories and demons, and a personal private nightmare world to navigate; but you often need to pass things from one nightmare world to the other, and the things so passed across will often appear in altered form on the other side. Much of the bulk of the game is about trying to cope with their personal fears and self-judgments by passing tools and resources from one nightmare-world to the other.

The puzzles are generally not grotesquely difficult once you understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but because everything is happening in a very symbolic landscape, they’re not always very well clued, and I hit the walkthrough in order to finish the thing in the comp time limit. Some aspects of the game reminded me of other pieces that I’ve enjoyed: there’s a surreal but visionary way to dig new passageways from some locations; there’s some Myst-like imagery of isolated islands that adhere to their own rules; etc.

That said, the writing didn’t always work for me. It’s possible to spend a long time at the beginning, before you realize you can sleep, REMEMBERing and THINKing as both characters: a very static lead-in, and not improved by the fact that the prose is often over the top. And both characters start as semi-amnesiacs, who only gradually remember what it was about their own lives they particularly loathed. It’s really not easy to establish sympathy for characters who barely know who they are and whose limited available backstory consists primarily of melodramatically expressed self-loathing.

Then even once I’d pieced together my theory about the plot, I took issue at a few points. But more of that post-spoiler-space.

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Ross is a young man who was frequently taunted for effeminacy and may perhaps be gay (though I wasn’t certain whether this was settled absolutely; maybe I missed clues). He’s also gotten to know someone named Reth, who planned to blow up a train for reasons of political activism. Ross tries, unsuccessfully, to prevent the explosion. Ross is also haunted by the sad lingering death of his mother.

Ross’ attempted intervention brings him into contact with Helen, a woman who hates herself for having become pregnant out of wedlock — though, if I’m understanding the sequence correctly, the baby doesn’t live. Certainly Helen’s ex or former friend, Mark (depicted in the afterlife scenes as incredibly holier-than-thou) condemns her for her “sins.” He tried to get her to church at some point in the past, but thanks to the premarital sex he now sees her as irredeemable, which suggests that his reading of the gospels skipped a few chapters. (That said, we’re meeting Helen’s projected nightmare Mark, not the real Mark, so perhaps it’s just that Helen imagines him being super-judgmental; but then again she presumably projects him that way for some real-world reason.)

Helen also does drugs, it’s implied in one sequence, because, hey, why not load her up with a full sin portfolio? And as she has hazy memories of bullying people as a child, it’s conceivable that she either was one of Ross’ tormentors or was functionally equivalent to them.

Depending on how the dream sequence stuff goes, both characters reassemble the scattered fragments of their souls until they’ve got all seven (of course seven, it has to be seven). Once this is done, one of the characters can kill a “thing” within the dream state — a thing that maybe represents their own damaged soul. Doing so seems to be a redemptive(?) action that brings someone back to life: so either Ross’ mother is saved, or Helen’s daughter is. But either way the anarchist train explosion still happens.

Fundamentally this scenario doesn’t work for me, for reasons both personal and theological.

The traumas feel like they’ve been assembled from kit: the miscarriage of a child, the death of a parent, the religious condemnation, the terrorist attack, the drug addiction, the bullying of the perceived-to-be-gay young man. All of those are genuinely traumatic things to have happen, but they weren’t written in a way that rang true to me — not enough individuality, not enough of the surprisingly telling detail that says that the author has experienced or researched or deeply imagined that situation for himself. (It may not help that I also read another brief narrative today about being the victim of anti-gay bullying, and though it didn’t go on very long at all, it had a brutal specificity and conviction that Spiral lacked.)

Where there were details, they felt slightly wrong. Mark’s spiritual pride, for instance. Of course it’s possible that there are people who speak and act that way in Britain, but my experience of the Church of England is that it’s a comparatively liberal and undogmatic religious culture, short on hellfire and brimstone. Maybe he belongs to an unusually ferocious parish, maybe he’s some other denomination than C-of-E, but Mark’s behavior really seemed to belong most to certain religious subcultures in the USA.

And then — the attitude that a woman has toward the loss of a pregnancy she wasn’t sure she wanted to start with? Again, I don’t want to assume that what I’ve observed is universal, or that there are no experiences other than the ones I’m familiar with, and for that matter maybe I’ve misunderstood the intended plot.

But assuming I understand right, then it again seemed wrong to me. In the cases I have seen of this particular situation, it’s painful in an extremely complicated way: sometimes a mix of shame, and covert relief because you weren’t ready to raise a child, certainly not alone; and maybe you no longer get on with the father, maybe he didn’t handle the news of the pregnancy well, maybe you’re still angry at yourself that you ever chose to be with someone who so totally failed to step up to his responsibilities. Then, too, guilt about feeling relief; and worry about whether your reproductive system works right at all, and will you be able to have kids later if you want them then, or whether this miscarriage is the first sign that you can’t; and what would this child have been like, would you have given it up for adoption, would your family have let you give it up, would your mother have guilted you into keeping it; or would you have wanted to raise it yourself, because when you saw its face it might have looked just like a grandparent, and imagining that gives you a hint of the power of common blood in a way you hadn’t really grasped before. But it’s too late now, so you should stop wondering about it at three AM; but could you have done something differently, and was there some level at which your body rejected the baby because your mind rejected the possibility of a baby; and then uncertainty about whom you’re willing to tell, the sense of awkward privacy that attends any reproductive misfortune, aggravation because sometimes the people you do tell don’t understand why it’s a big deal (“but you don’t WANT a kid now anyway, right?”); and the way it’s suddenly so hard to be in the aisle with the baby food and the horrid stupid Gerber label you can’t look at, and then some solicitous person asks if you’re all right and if so why are you crying, anyway, in the grocery store?

Not that it’s the same thing every time or for everyone, but the point is, there’s a whole tangly mass of possibility here, and nothing in Spiral begins to chart that territory.

Likewise, Helen’s drug use is implied more or less in passing, in an almost “oh why not throw this in too!” way that captures absolutely none of the anguish of living with or near an addiction in the real world. It too feels like another marker, a sign of a failed and decadent life (at least as she sees herself).

Then there’s the theological side. I’m not quite sure what we’re supposed to take away as the message of all this, but it seems as though in the “successful” endings, at least one of the participants has succumbed to despair, a suicidal urge for the destruction of his or her own soul, and yet that act is taken as a sacrifice sufficient to rescue or preserve an innocent person, either Helen’s daughter or Ross’ mother. And I don’t see the sense of this. It seems to say that the fate of souls is a zero-sum game — and I think that even within the more dogmatic types of Christian worldview, that’s a misreading of the rules. Sacrifice may have power, but self-destructive despair is not sacrifice.

So. Hm. My sense of this piece is that the author wishes to explore ideas of spiritual tribulation, and to suggest that cooperation is needed and no one can simply save him- or herself. If that’s a remotely correct reading, then I think Spiral makes some sense, and even achieves a few moments of symbolic elegance.

But I kept wanting it to be more grounded in lived experience. It’s not the gravity or the multiplicity of the trauma that makes a sad story affecting; it’s the truth with which that story is told. Rightly or not, I’ve come to see this heaping up of Big Traumas (dead baby! dead parent! dead strangers! plague of dead wasps! also some drug abuse, a lake of fire, some bullying and slut-shaming! and terrorism!!) as a marker of authorial youth.

One of those things would totally suffice as stakes for a story — yes, even the plague of dead wasps — so long as it was told observantly and truthfully.

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