IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Lucian Smith on Switcheroo

mirror_bg532This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Here IF author Lucian Smith writes about Switcheroo, and especially about the narrative of foster care and adoption, from the perspective of his own experience. I am grateful to everyone who has agreed to help with this project, and I am especially grateful to Lucian for the openness of what he writes here.

‘Switcheroo’ is a clunky story that made me tear up. It’s a story about foster care and adoption that seemed to me to resort to clichés and standbys at every turn but the last, whereupon it said something remarkably profound about what it means to be a child who wants to be adopted. It’s a choice-based game where 9 times out of 10 the choice is ‘click to continue’, where 9 times out of 68 the choice is ‘choose something that slightly characterizes the protagonist’, and where the final choice is one of the most profound choices I have ever been presented with in a work of interactive fiction.

I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that as far as the ‘craft’ axis goes, this game still needs a fair amount of work. The text still needs some basic editing–it can’t decide, for example, whether the person who runs the foster care house is ‘Ms. Wobbles’ or ‘Mrs. Wobbles’. On a more structural level, the whole story felt at times as if it had not quite been fully translated from an oral medium to a written one: there are several digressions; places where the perspective suddenly shifts momentarily before snapping back into place; changes in tone that you could cover with your voice, but which need extra signifiers in text if they are to work.

Interactively, the entire game is set up to let you make a single very important choice at the very end of the game. Most of the other choices (beyond the ‘click to continue’ story-pacing links) try to let you invest the protagonist with some sort of particular personality. There are a couple structural aspects of the story that work against this. The first is simply that none of the subsequent text of the story changes to reflect these choices, apart from the immediately-following text (and that often perfunctorily). The second is that a fairly significant narrative divide is set up in the game between the player and the protagonist, which blocks a deeper identification between the two. “You” is always the player, while “He” or “Derik” is always the protagonist. “I shall always reward your curiosity,” the game tells you when you click on an ‘extra’ link and it gives you-the-player an extra definition or digression, and not you-the-protagonist, followed not long after by “behave yourself and listen,” again talking to the player. When it gives you a choice, it asks you questions like, “What should Derik [the protagonist] say?” This is an obviously deliberate choice, and could still work to characterize Derik if the player was being encouraged to roleplay (or, of course, if Derik’s non-player-controlled actions in the story were at all a product of the choices that the player had made). But instead, the opposite happens, and after making your first real choice, you are told:

“Oh, that reminds me — You’ve no doubt noticed a new category on the Character chart. For this story, I’ll be rating your decisions on this scale to see if you’re behaving more toward the rough side, like Huck Finn, or toward the refined and delicate side, like Sleeping Beauty.”

And indeed, a sidebar changes as you go through the story to different characters like “Matilda” and “Hermione Granger”. But as far as this ‘mini-game’ of sorts is concerned, the player is building up their own play style here, and Derik is merely being moved through the story like a puppet, enjoying no player-influenced agency at all.

Another thing you-the-player can do is gain ‘Poem Powers’ and ‘Page Points’, accomplished by clicking any link that isn’t the ‘click-to-continue’ link (always the last 2-3 words of any new text). The first (and only) time you gain ‘Poem Powers’ you are told “Poetry Power-up: Look for these hidden in the story to gain special powers to use when facing challenges.” This is, as far as I can tell, a complete lie. Not only was I never informed of any special powers I might have gained, but there were also no significant challenges presented: at no choice point was there ever the possibility of failure, merely nuance. The game is, as mentioned, all about making a final, deeply-personal choice: having special ‘poetry powers’ that made that choice easier or different somehow would absolutely undermine it. No mention is ever made of what to do with ‘Page Points’, so I suppose they’re just a collectible.

That said: despite the structural issues that push against it, it is possible to use at least some of the choices given to begin to answer the central premise of the piece: how does Derik respond to being a girl instead of a boy? Will he/she try to act like a girl? Like a boy? Find a balance between the two? And it’s impossible to talk about this without spoilers, so as I transition from ‘craft’ to ‘content’, let me add some spoiler space. It’s an unfortunate place to have to add it, since everything I’ve said about craft has been mildly negative, and everything I have to say about content will be glowingly positive. The game doesn’t take long to play through, and I do indeed recommend it, despite the craft issues I have, so if you like playing everything unspoiled, go try it now. On the other hand, some reviews of the game I’ve managed to find so far seem to me to miss the point of the work, so maybe having it explained will actually enhance your experience. Your choice, obviously, so here’s the requisite space…

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So, right. The premise here is that Derik, a boy with a wheelchair in a foster care home, wakes up as Denise, a healthy girl. After some coming to grips with this, a family shows up who might be interested in adopting Denise. The key to understanding the story here is the following passage, where Mrs. Wobbles (the woman in charge of the house, who reportedly may be some sort of witch) explains to the children who the family (the Sheepheads) are:

‘The family at the door are a lovely couple that had contacted me several weeks ago. It seems they’ve been looking at the files of the children here to find a good match for them and their circumstance.

‘They followed one child from her last placement, and now that she is with us, they’d like to spend the afternoon with…

The room was silent as a librarian’s dream.

‘Denise.’

Denise, of course, does not really exist. She is a construct inhabited by Derik and made possible by Mrs. Wobbles’ magic (which extends to bureaucracy, it seems). Derik is injured, permanently scarred, and a boy: all things that the Sheepheads think they don’t want, or would be too much for them to handle. Not a ‘good match’. Can he be what they want anyway? Is this a good idea?

From here, the game branches to one of three parallel tracks, dependent on what activity you choose for Derik to suggest, each potentially gaining you different, incomplete views of the kind of people the Sheepheads are. In the ‘Picnic’ path, you might discover that Mrs. Sheephead is actually just fine with you acting like a ‘tomboy’, and merely suggests skorts instead of a skirt for the next time you want to do cartwheels. In the ‘Movie’ path, you might discover that Mr. Sheephead is kind of interested in ‘girly’ things, and Mrs. Sheephead is kind of interested in ‘boy’ things. In the ‘Ice skating’ path, you might discover that the Sheepheads are pretty relaxed about things. Or you might discover nothing! Which is, I think, part of what the game is trying to illustrate: sometimes you have to make important decisions based on woefully incomplete information.

In any event, the Sheepheads then take Derik/Denise to a fancy doll shop to get a doll, and here’s where the plot really ramps up. Despite assuming that he’d never find a doll that he liked, he finds a doll in a wheelchair, complete with an amazing biography of an incredible life and immediately thinks, “Home.” ‘Home’ is a really interesting word in this context, because Derik doesn’t really have a home, per se, so much as he has an identity. And here, the doll shares a wheelchair with Derik, the gender of Denise, and the character of a hero: of Derik’s aspirations. Is the doll’s gender not as important as it might have been? Is the doll’s gender more important than it might have been? Mr. Sheephead then comes on the scene:

‘What an excellent choice! A doll in a wheelchair! Amazing!’ said Joe. ‘I wonder what happened to her. I wonder if she could get an operation and be able to walk again. I think they have a hospital in this store. Maybe this is just one of the broken ones.’

At that, Denise dropped the doll and ran down the escalator and out the front door into a stream of people.

This is probably as good a time as any to let you know that my wife and I have ourselves adopted a child from the foster-care system, fostering her for a year first until we were finally legally allowed to adopt her. The whole ‘child bursts into tears for no discernable reason that probably has to do with their unknown-to-you past’ scenario is something we were taught to be ready for in the extensive training we went through. Although we personally never saw anything quite as immediately dramatic as this scene, there have nevertheless been many times when our daughter’s reaction to something has been completely mystifying to both of us, and we struggle to make sense of it, help her weather the storm, and hopefully start moving forward. Up until this point of the story, I had been vaguely disappointed by what it portrayed: the choices I could make seemed perfunctory, and the setting was cliché and not particularly realistic (there are practically zero orphanages in the US today, let alone ones similar to the one depicted here). There had been a few nice moments and descriptions in the story, but nothing really had jumped out at me, which was confusing, since I knew the author was actually an adoptive parent, and you’d think they’d know. Then this scene came up and I finally bonded with the text—I realized that the author(s) did indeed have interesting things to say about adoption.

After this, the Sheepheads find Denise, awkwardly apologize, and everyone shares a gloomy ride back to the foster home. Derik, after sitting with Mrs. Wobbles on the front porch for a while, is then given the final choice: stay Denise, and be adopted? Or go back to being Derik, and wait?

I was about to select ‘go back to being Derik’ almost by instinct, because our American culture is really really big on being ‘true to yourself’, and being genuine and honest and straightforward, etc. etc. But then I started thinking about it a little more, and then (finally) the big metaphor/allegory of the game hit me, blindingly obvious in hindsight:

This game is not about gender. It is not about physical disabilities, or even mental disabilities. It is about identity, and about kids who have been wounded and scarred. It is about how sometimes your identity is attached to your wounds, and how setting your wounds aside can be like setting your identity aside, too. It is about searching for a connection with people, and about how sometimes that means becoming what they think they want as part of a (slow) process of trust-building and revelation. It’s about how changing yourself for someone else can be a positive thing, but at the same time be painful.

Most of our stories about identity focus on the ideal of being able to be completely honest about ourselves to others: our romantic comedies tell stories where hiding some aspect of ourselves is an obstacle to love, even though all of us do it all the time. Stories of ‘coming out’ focus, again, on being honest and transparent, presenting those that can’t handle it as not worthy of your time.

But what this view forgets is that being completely honest with other people is the endgame, not the opening salvo. The requirements for being able to be honest about yourself to others are either huge amounts of trust, or huge amounts of not-having-to-deal-with-what-other-people-think. People come out to people they trust, or in situations where they feel prepared to deal with others’ negative reactions. People reveal intimate details about themselves to people they have grown to love and trust; they don’t advertise them on dating websites.

And when you have a flaw that you wish you could fix, or a wound that you wish would heal, pretending it away is sometimes a valid strategy. Healthy relationships can bring out the best in us, smoothing over our flaws, and love can begin to heal old wounds. It’s not even necessary for the person that loves us to know about the flaw or wound: the fact that they love you is itself the necessary tonic.

And, getting back the game and the issue of adoption, if you’re a child in foster care, you’re on a rapidly-ticking timer, where there is simply no time to futz around waiting for a family that’s a ‘good fit’ for your flaws and for your wounds. So if a family comes along that wants something that you’re not quite, but could be, you absolutely change yourself. Pretend you’re not injured? Done. Become a girl? Sold. It’s no accident that Derik is transformed in the story from a boy to a girl, and not the other way ‘round: girls in our culture have greater expectations set on them, with more pressure to conform. The transformation comes at a cost of not just a loss of your old identity, but with higher pressures on the new one.

There is a well-documented ‘honeymoon period’ when a child moves into a new home, and acts perfectly around everyone. And in fact, the way you know your new child is starting to trust you is when they finally start acting out and misbehaving: they can finally let their guard down a little, testing to see if you’ll still love them even when they’re not perfect. That’s what I believe this game is documenting: a child’s choice to become the perfect child for a good-hearted couple, in the hopes that a connection will be made that will survive the eventual dismantling of the artifice—or, perhaps, that the artifice will become a new, better reality for everyone involved.

Another aspect of this can be found by looking at the story from the Sheepheads’ perspective. As a prospective foster/adopt family, I can tell you that you are bombarded with questions about your preferences, so the placement agencies don’t waste their time asking you about kids you won’t accept (though then they turn around and ask you anyway, so half the time it seems like filling out all those forms was kind of moot). For us, we were forced to say things like, “We know there’s a greater need to find parents for African-American children, and we think we’d be OK at that, despite the cultural differences. If you need us for that, we’re willing to try. And…I guess we already have a son, so maybe a slight preference for a daughter? Maybe 3-5 years younger than our son? And some physical disabilities might be too hard for us to deal with, I guess? But maybe we could handle a drug-addicted baby? And we communicate affection through touch a lot in our household, so a child for whom touch has been stigmatized would be really difficult,” only in slightly more formal language. So I can tell you pretty conclusively that what the Sheepheads decided they wanted was at least somewhat arbitrary, and perhaps almost random: give a couple a list of 20 kids to choose between, and they’ll start making decisions based on little-to-no data, because the data is literally impossible to collect: if you have no children, how can you possibly know what sort of child you’d get along with? If you have a child, how can you know what characteristics of a second child will bring balance to your home, and what kind will throw everything off-kilter? Are there even ways to figure out the answers to these questions? With enough hard work and attention, you could make lots of things work—is there a limit to the amount of hard work and attention you’re going to be willing to give? To the amount you’d going to be able to give? To the amount you’ll be able to give in another five years, when adolescence hits and everyone’s personalities change and your life circumstances are different and…?

So Mrs. Wobbles is a sort of magical wish-fulfilment figure here: a person who knows the system, and who knows all of the people involved enough to be able to make a match that wouldn’t have happened without her influence. But she’s not a complete fantasy: we had our own ‘Mrs. Wobbles’ in our own story. Our daughter’s former foster mother knew the system extensively, and was very involved in interviewing potential families to find a good fit for her, so much so that when we went to go interview with the social worker along with another potential family, that other family didn’t show up, and it was just us. I wasn’t privy to her conversation with that family, but I know the stories she told us about the little girl living in her home were told in part to bolster our confidence that we could overcome the challenges we would face, and I suspect the stories told to that other family were technically just as accurate, but told with a different spin. Because the truth isn’t the best final arbiter of match-making, here: compatibility is something that can’t be measured or quantified all that easily.

All that to explain why I had Derik stay as Denise at the end of the story, and why I think that’s the ultimate message of the work: that facades are sometimes a necessary part of bonding, that help more than they hinder. It’s not easy, and you might lose part of yourself along the way. But with luck—and love—you’ll get it back in the end.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Lucian Smith on Switcheroo

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2015 review collective | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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