ParserComp: Chlorophyll (and a digression about female characters)

Cover

Chlorophyll is a lighthearted science fiction story by Steph Cherrywell, the author of Jacqueline, Jungle Queen. The premise is that you’re a sentient, mobile plant and have been brought along on a space colonization expedition by your mother, who is trying to discover what’s gone wrong with an abandoned space station. Your need to photosynthesize constantly provides a combined light/hunger puzzle that puts a fresh spin on a pair of rather elderly text adventure tropes.

The other puzzles work pretty well too. Eventually I needed to reach for the walkthrough, but that was mostly for reasons of time and general exhaustion and wanting to get through enough ParserComp games to vote, despite GDC travel. I think in other circumstances I would have gotten through most or all of the puzzles on my own. As in Jacqueline, Jungle Queen, I felt like the author had a pretty much textbook mastery of puzzle/map design for a game this size: you get a confined intro, then access to multiple puzzles at once, then narrow again to a more dramatic couple of endgame puzzles. It may be a standard structure, but it’s a standard for good reasons.

I had a stronger reaction to the story than to the puzzle structure. Except for the photosynthesis concept, the implications of your plant-based origins are developed gently and selectively. Plant culture bears a lot of resemblance to human culture, down to toy stores and hair leaf salons. Plant-person society is apparently all-female: male Xyloids are grown in special gardens and appear to be objectified and possibly non-mobile or even non-sentient.

Meanwhile the protagonist is right around (human-like) puberty, and this was handled with a few well-selected moments and bits of inner monologue. We see a growing desire for independence, a mixed curiosity and disquiet around sex, ambivalent feelings about a position somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and opportunities to play both sides of that divide at different points in the game. In a hair-dressing scene that fills no plot-critical function, the protagonist can explore different ways of presenting herself: does she see herself as glamorous? tomboyish? like a smaller edition of her Mom? And as simple as these options are, they capture something about the personal stakes of such decisions. Plenty of media present young teen girls as obsessed with hair and fashion, but flag up that behavior as shallow or “girly” in a negative sense. From the inside, all this is the opposite of shallow: it’s a whole complicated and confusing process of figuring out who you are as a social being, where you stand relative to sex and adulthood, and what set of signifiers will help you communicate those discoveries — or, if need be, camouflage the things you’re not ready to share.

In an understated way, Chlorophyll understands all that. Its protagonist is, yes, immature in an absolute sense, prone to sullenness and resentment of adults. But she’s doing a good job of handling the life stage she’s at. She’s capable of handling machinery and scientific problems as well as anyone her age could be expected to; she’s perceptive about work culture, sensitive about her changing relationship to her mother, and brave in the face of danger, while still being distinctively a girl and dealing with the kinds of issues that female-identifying people often deal with during puberty.

Then there’s Mom. The protagonist’s mother is put out of action fairly early on, in classic children’s/YA-literature style: the only way to get young people into adventure-hero roles is usually to remove the adults who would normally be responsible for dealing with serious situations. But this is handled reasonably adroitly. And despite the mother’s absence for the majority of the time, there are still a number of references back to her. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the story is mainly about your relationship with her, but there are several points where it is important, and in particular one of the game’s key puzzle rewards doubles as a re-assessment of how Mom thinks of you.

This was enough to make me reflect on how rarely IF touches on mother/daughter relationships at all. There’s a bit of this in Common Ground, and some in my own work Bee, but I’m not thinking of a lot of other examples.

I wouldn’t really have pointed out mother-daughter relationships as a Thing That Is Lacking before playing Chlorophyll, but when I encountered it here, I found it refreshing all out of proportion with what actually happens in this game — which is a pretty good sign of an unsatisfied longing.

This is perhaps related to another wish I had previously identified: I want to play more games featuring middle-aged and older women in established career positions. I might be interested in a show about a female superhero or a female soldier, but I don’t identify with or aspire to those situations. I’m more excited by women who have agency and enjoy respect because of what they’ve built and accomplished, through dedication and talent and social savvy. I know women like this in real life, and am fortunate enough to count some as mentors and friends, but such characters don’t come along as often as I’d like in any of the media I consume. When you do get an older female character in a career role, she’s often portrayed as a stone-cold bitch, a Miranda Priestly or a Patty Hewes, having lost every humane impulse in the process of reaching her position. I want more CJ Creggs, please — and, indeed, more Annalise Keatings, because morally ambiguous though Annalise is, she is motivated by a mix of vulnerability, loyalty, ambition, and (sometimes warped) principle. Her brilliance and her success exist alongside all the other components of a human.

I want more of this kind of representation because, frankly, I am looking for hints. Navigating a career you take seriously often presents special challenges for women. There’s the challenge of finding a sweet spot between being too passive to be effective, and being assertive in ways that many people will accept only from men; between buying into the prevailing work culture too little to be an acceptable fit, or so much that one is doing nothing to make it easier for the generation of women who will come afterward; between being dismissed as unambitious, and being condemned for not being enough of a team player. In some positions and corporate cultures, no sweet spot exists. (See also Mattie Brice on The Lost Woman in Games.) Whether this issue is apparent on the outside or not, it is the subject of a lot of thought, and of many of the conversations I have with other women, both inside and outside the game industry.

So I welcome more examples of how to be, and when something with a mature female character with ambitions beyond family life does come along, I tend to watch/read/play that thing avidly despite whatever other problems it may have.

Anyway, Chlorophyll. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad to see another entry from Steph Cherrywell. I had a few implementation nitpicks I’ll put on the other side of spoiler space, but essentially it’s fun, gently challenging, with a fresh enough concept to keep things interesting, and a handling of its female characters that I found very welcome. And while it’s mostly focused on a pubescent girl, it sketches a few of those elusive mature female characters in the background, not only your mother but all the others who inhabit and run the station.

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There are a handful of issues. I had some trouble during the underwater segment realizing which directions were active. IN and ENTER SPACESHIP gave me (different) misleading messages when I tried to enter the spaceship, when DOWN was required, and as a result I spent a little while thinking it was unenterable scenery. I had a similar problem with the lean-to. It’s possible to READ entries in the book of stories, but not LOOK UP PLANET IN BOOK (for instance). Also, at one point (due to player confusion) I repeated snagging and unsnagging the cube in the presence of the dragonweed, and it “dropped” the fuse over again even though I’d already retrieved that.

On the other hand: another reviewer expressed confusion about how the mother moved around the station before you found her again. This didn’t bother me, because I assumed that the nockbeast had moved her.

14 thoughts on “ParserComp: Chlorophyll (and a digression about female characters)

  1. I’d been looking forward to this piece, ngl — it was my favorite of the few entries I was able to play before getting swamped by newjobstuff, and I just enjoyed it, period.

    Older women in fiction + mother/daughter relationships = yes! Also, I think, mentor/student dealios with underrepresented genders in general, I think — guess they’re all of a piece, sort of, but yeah.

  2. Eidolon is another game with a lot of mother/daughter relationship in it. And (he mansplains) wasn’t there a fair amount in Best of Three?

  3. There aren’t many parent-child relationships in interactive media in general. I wouldn’t even really count Chlorophyll (which I enjoyed quite a bit), since the mother is absent for almost all of the story. This is sort of bewildering, since after spouse/partner, that’s the primary relationship for every parent I know. In some ways, it even supersedes the spouse/partner relationship. I understand that YA fiction sidelines adults because they’re about fledgling independence and discovering self-agency. But it’s surprising that interactive media (and IF in particular) which is written by and for adults doesn’t include more parent-child stuff. I enjoy doing things with and being around my own young daughter; seems like fertile ground for interesting fiction.

    • I was thinking about the gender-swapped question, and in IF I came up with Dad vs. Unicorn and Losing Your Grip pretty quickly. (Though the father is pretty absent in LYG.) Maybe I’ll make another poll. Maybe this time I won’t even misspell the title!

    • Replying here mainly so we can have all 3 Matt Ws involved in the same post… :)

      My off-the-cuff guess, which could be off base for a number of reasons, is that this is because most authors of interactive fiction are not parents. It would be interesting to look at whether actual parent/child relationships, or at least parent/child or mentor/protege themes, are more common in works by authors who have kids.

      • Just speaking as the writer of Chlorophyll (thank you for the review, by the way!) I don’t have kids, so even though I’m closer to most parents in age, I tend to find kids easier to relate to. I read a lot of YA and juvenile lit as well, so it’s more of a natural perspective to me.

        Would you consider commercial games incorporating video but which still follow the form of interactive stories to be ‘interactive fiction’? If so, Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead would both qualify as focusing on parental relationships, but they’re both very much about dads (and father figures)–I can’t think of one where you play the mother.

      • Yeah, Heavy Rain was the first thing that came to mind as interactive media. Amanda Lange likes to talk about dadfeels as a thing in games–as the AAA designer ages into the parent demographic often the feelings of fathers toward their children and surrogatish children (especially daughters). Let’s see… besides Walking Dead she cites The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite and Call of Duty, and from what I’ve heard we can add Watch Dogs, though this is all second-hand because I don’t AAA. “Kudos go once again to Fire Emblem: Awakening, the only game this year in which I was able to play as someone’s cool mom.”

        (Also, you Matt Ws get offa my lawn).

      • Yeah, there’s definitely been a trend towards father/child relationships in the last few years (enough that this was a thing that was talked about at GDC). But realistic mother/child stuff I’m not seeing as much of — or mother/adult daughter, for that matter.

  4. I, too, would like more games focused on women who create their own individual lives or careers. Currently, there’s a few book series in YA but not really anything notable for games. I’ve spoken to my friends but there’s is odd negativity that somehow having a female main character will make it impossible to relate to. I don’t understand myself as not everyone is man but I still have to play as a male main character for approx 90% of games atm.

    • I don’t understand why a female main character would be “impossible to relate to” simply on account of being female.
      I wonder about these men (presumably, it is men) who would find it impossible to relate to a female main character. How do such men deal with the women in their lives?

      If you want something “impossible to relate to”, try Zork-style kleptomania. If I’m going to risk my life collecting things, they had bloody well better not be McGuffins with only a weight and a point value.

  5. Reblogged this on Cirsova and commented:
    I haven’t finished it, but this is probably one of the most endearing little games i’ve played in awhile, and probably my favorite parser game since Hunger Daemon.

  6. Pingback: IF Comp 2015: Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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