Save the Date (Paper Dino / Chris Cornell)

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Save the Date is a Ren’Py game where you learn from repetition. The date you’re going on, with a woman named Felicia, keeps going wrong (to say the least), and you need to keep replaying in order to try to make it come out better. Felicia starts off as a bit of a cipher, but she develops a more interesting character over the course of the game, much of which consists of conversation between the two of you.

This is a replay game on the order of Shrapnel or (to a lesser degree) Rematch: some state from earlier playthroughs is preserved, which means that the game actually offers you new opportunities for action after you’ve played through certain branches.

It sort of has to work this way because it’s Ren’Py; you don’t have the parser’s opportunity to conceal commands whose use will only be obvious after a couple of playthroughs. Contrast Lock & Key or Make It Good, where a “winning” playthrough is theoretically possible even the first time you open the game, but would require phenomenal luck for anyone to accomplish without foreknowledge. Parser-based versions of this concept tend to be substantially harder than Save the Date.

Underneath the date concept, Save the Date is actually a piece about interactive storytelling, and I will talk more about how after the spoiler space. You may want to play it yourself; it’s not a large time commitment, and I am about to spoil it very thoroughly in order to discuss it.

Each time you go out with Felicia, she dies. Sometimes she expires from a peanut allergy from Thai food; sometimes a deck collapses at a taco restaurant with waterfront seating; sometimes there’s a drive-by shooting or a ninja attack or something even more absurd. But every time, she dies.

After the first few times this happens, the player gets the opportunity to try to use knowledge from past playthroughs either to warn Felicia (“hey, don’t have the Pad Thai, it has nuts in it”) or to try to gain her trust in order to make her do what you say. Eventually, you can earn enough of Felicia’s trust that you can tell her she’s a video game character, and that she keeps dying. At this point in my playthrough Felicia had died nearly twenty times, from fates as diverse as a car crash, ninja onset, and attack of tentacled sea monster. In response she starts talking to you about why the game might be the way it is. Her take is that the author is trying to tell you something with all these repeated deaths: specifically, that you’re free to make your own ending to the story, outside the constraints of the game. Just walk away and imagine that the story ends a different way, she says.

There are actually three possible ways to “end” things. You can take her advice; you can go into the game’s file package and make some changes to the resource file that will unlock a happy, “hacker” ending within the game world; or you can decide not even to try to take her on a date at all, in which case she survives.

But it’s clear, I think, both from the game and from Chris Cornell’s own comments, that the intended solution is for you to walk away and imagine the ending differently for yourself. This is also what Felicia urges you to do. If you don’t, she actually gets angry at you for hanging about to see her die again and again — explicitly calling out the player’s complicity in a bad outcome.

So structurally, this is a combination of the replay puzzle (where you develop an ideal strategy by playing through successive failures) and win by quitting (where the ideal gambit is to stop playing).

Cornell explains:

It’s easy to forget, but we already mess with the story ALL THE TIME when we’re playing. I’ll be playing ninja gaiden, for example, and the game tells me the story of “the ninja on a mission of justice, who totally hit a bird while jumping, and fell in a pit and died, the end.”

And I’ll be like “no, this story is balls, I want to hear about the one where the ninja totally kicks everyone’s ass, including that bird who is a total dick” and so I hit continue. I’m actively rejecting the story the game told, and trying to get it to tell me another. Any time you reload from a save game after dying, you’re doing that.

I wanted to try to make a game to highlight this, and to remind people that they change stories all the time. And that this is a GOOD thing, and that they can do it on purpose, to try to get the story that they want.

The idea about storytelling here is a variation of one I classify as the Roger Ebert Fallacy: that because the player can make choices about what happens in the game, the meaning of authorship is lost; the player has an equal place in the story with the author, or even a greater one, and can use the game entirely for wish-fulfillment purposes, thus undermining the potential of the piece of art.

Save the Date puts a more positive spin on that idea by saying, “hey, as the player, if you don’t like the story I’m telling you, you’re free to retell it. Everyone wins, right? And that’s really not so different at all from the other sorts of choices you make in games all the time.”

Well, no. I don’t buy this. In the Ninja Gaiden example, there are a couple of critical differences: first, the “character dies” story ending is clearly marked as a less-positive alternate story outcome, one with less legitimacy than the main story. Second, the only endings that you can produce by making choices as a player are the endings that result from the rules of the game as set down. And this is the critical point; this is why games and interactive stories can still convey meaning even if the player has some range of control over the story. It’s because that range of control is tightly limited, and the constraints themselves are part of the message.

The ironic thing is that Save the Date demonstrates this in its own form: it gives the player lots of ways to try to change the ending, but no ways that succeed, and the meaning emerges from the trying and the failing, as in many other interactive stories.

The other thing I don’t like about “just go make up the ending” is that it cuts off the conversation of interactive storytelling. Say I do make up an ending, in my head. No one else knows about it, though. It doesn’t communicate anything from me to the author or from the author to me. If I talk to other fans of the game, they won’t know about my ending, and I won’t know about theirs.

That said, I do like something else the author said about the theme of his work:

The theme of the game is “Storytelling is cooperative. You, the listener are not a passive content sponge.” Especially in any sort of game, where the player has any kind of meaningful interaction at all.

This part I agree with; and that’s why it’s possible to play with concepts such as complicity and reflective choice. But I think it’s important, if you’re trying to let the player actually contribute new content to the story, to do so in a way that incorporates their contributions within the rules of the game world. That’s what’s so cool about pieces such as Ex Nihilo or 18 Cadence or Spoken: they draw the player’s meaning into the world and allow it to be shared with other players, or with the author again. Or, failing that, the ending of Pale Blue Light, where the player’s input is briefly reused.

Anyway, here’s the ending I made up for Save the Date:

Felicia isn’t just a character in the game. She’s another player avatar. All those times she died in game were because the other player disconnected, restarted, whatever, so the game slotted in a crazy death to cover for her departure. A couple of times when I restarted the game myself, she saw my avatar die: bitten by a dangerous South American spider at the taco restaurant, succumbing to an E. Coli attack at the burger joint, carried off by a whole cloud of vampire bats from the scenic lookout.

Just as I have options to tell her I’m playing a video game, she’s got some options to tell me who she really is, but even when I break my fourth wall, she’s so un-fond of meta-game commentary that she keeps role-playing in-game Felicia, insistently pretending to just be an NPC, trying to see where the story will go. But it won’t end; we both keep dying. Eventually she can’t even play the game because I stop showing up.

If she hadn’t done that — if she’d just been brave enough (or mastered her aesthetic distaste enough) to tell me who she was — then we could have unlocked the good ending, together. But even though that didn’t happen, she’s fine, really. Somewhere out there in the world she’s squinting in confusion at Bientôt l’été right now.

6 thoughts on “Save the Date (Paper Dino / Chris Cornell)

  1. a) First of all, I’m a big fan. I haven’t played IF in years and years, but I still really enjoy reading your reviews and analyses. So — thank you! (We met in NY about a decade ago, an occasion I still remember fondly. Hope you are well!)

    b) Even though I haven’t played IF in years and years (see item a), after reading the first few sentences of this review, I was suddenly moved to play Save the Date.

    I am pretty sure I enjoyed it, although I would really have liked Felicia to be a self-rescuing princess (because of the name, I imagined her as Felicia Day, the similarly refrigerator-girl doomed love interest of Dr. Horrible). The most interesting point for me was when I had the choice to tell her that I was trying to save her life *or* that she was a doomed character in a video game. I immediately chose the first; I was attracted to the novelty of the second, but I didn’t want her to feel badly about being a video game character.

    Now *that* is all kinds of fucked up in a way that I really appreciate. Although I didn’t appreciate the basic premise of the game (I don’t play interactive fiction to be scolded to “go and write your own story”) the game made me stop and think about the relationships between myself, the character I control in the game, and Felicia. So that was cool.

    My ending goes like this:

    After explaining to Felicia that she’s in a video game, she asks how it is that I always remember what happened last time. I tell her about QuickSave. She thinks for a minute and tells me to tell her that over the phone the next time I play. The next restart, it offers me an option to tell her about QuickSave. She QuickSaves, and therefore has an uproarious time going through life doing super-daring dangerous stuff and whisking herself back to her apartment, with full memory and experience, before anything really bad happens. Maybe we have exploits together. I can’t remember them because it’s not MY QuickSave, but them’s the breaks, right?

    The End.

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