Cinders (Moacube)

only it was really too inconvenient, you see,
not least when it shattered on the staircase
I was running up to catch the last train…
Apologies for Breaking the Glass Slipper, Isabel Yap

When I’m drawn to adapt a traditional story to interactive fiction, it’s often because there’s something about the original that bothers me so deeply that I feel I need to address it. Part of the reason I rework fairy tales is that I have such a love-hate relationship with them: I was raised on them, read them avidly as a child, but consider them to have been terrible guidance in many many ways. Especially, especially, the Cinderella-style model of passive virtue for women that said, Don’t complain if people aren’t giving you your fair share. If people ask too much of you, comply anyway. Put yourself last in all circumstances. Endure anything that comes your way. Never speak up for yourself. In the end, your patience may be acknowledged and rewarded by someone else, but not, of course, at your own instigation.

This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated. Other people cannot be expected always to guess accurately what’s a reasonable thing to ask of you and what’s an unfair imposition. When they ask something that’s an imposition, a lot of the time they’re relying on you to say no if no is the appropriate answer. If you don’t ever push back, you cast other people as the villains in your story without their necessarily ever intending to have that role. If you never say no, you allow your time to be spent frivolously on things that might not even matter all that much to the asker, instead of on things that might make a big difference elsewhere.

I’m still fighting to reprogram myself. I think maybe other women sometimes are too. Cinderella, I notice, gets retold a lot from the perspective of women who are trying to make the lead character a little less passive, a little less obedient. Rosamund Hodge’s novella Gilded Ashes explains Cinderella’s cooperation through a novel twist: the ghost of Cinderella’s mother still haunts the area, and reacts with such terrible vengeance towards anyone it perceives making Cinderella unhappy that the girl has to feign a good mood all the time, or face being responsible for the violence that will result.

Then there’s Cinders.

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Cinders is a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella that takes a shot at this same issue. It’s been out for a few years, but recently a friend gave me a Steam key for it, so I only played a month or so ago. It has a lot to commend it: the art is very attractive while not belonging to the usual anime categories; the story offers a high number of branches and subbranches; and the whole thrust of both story and mechanics is to interrogate the “be quiet, put up with being bossed around, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a man” message of the original fairy tale.

This Cinderella has the opportunity to be passively obedient (“good”), assertively selfish (“bad”), or “smart” (here’s a spoilery breakdown of how stats are distributed over the course of the game). Being smart is usually a third-way path that acknowledges nuance and complexity in interpersonal matters while rejecting fantasies and delusions about magic. The conventionally “best” outcome, where Cinders marries the prince and then presides over a happy kingdom, requires a balanced behavioral profile. And whatever happens, the Cinders in this story doesn’t get any outcome without working for it.

I think there’s still further to dig into the Cinderella problem — the difficult thing in my experience is not so much about whether one should sometimes stand up for oneself, but about when, and how, and how to balance other people’s needs with yours when you’re out of practice making that calculation, and how to deal with the emotional fallout of standing up for yourself when you’re still counting your own “virtue” in terms of the number of other people’s tasks you did today.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the spin Cinders put on this old problem, and the fact that some of the happy endings didn’t wind up joining me with the prince at all, but let me have other lovers, or solitude, or even something approximating a career.

Hatoful Boyfriend

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Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel of the dating sim genre(ish), in which all of the possible romantic leads are birds. You are a female human attending an otherwise all-bird school, and you have your choice of pigeons, quails, and doves, each possessing a characteristic personality. What initially seems like a whimsical premise gradually develops a bit more depth; there’s even a website devoted to the writings of a prominent in-world pigeon blogger.

Quite a lot has already been written about Hatoful Boyfriend, often by people more familiar than I am with visual novel conventions — though the visual novel community, like the gamebook community, often seems so relevant to interactive fiction that it’s a little mystifying that there isn’t more communication. As with many other dating sims, the game is designed to be replayed to unlock new content: you begin by romancing different suitors and finding out their secrets, which then allows you to access a different ending to the story. In contrast with a lot of “ultimate ending” finales, though, the unlockable content in Hatoful Boyfriend is both much longer than the per-suitor stories, and of a different genre: a horrific mystery, rather than a romance, and one that does a lot to explain how a world of sentient pigeons has come about.

I couldn’t help thinking as I played about some of the arguments in Creatures Such as We, especially the idea that it’s hard to explore consent in a game in which all NPCs are prizes for the protagonist. With Hatoful Boyfriend, I felt that I was experiencing the opposite effect of this: the game expects you to play many times, and each time you must mold the protagonist in order to suit the tastes of the bird she’s pursuing. There are only a few characteristics of hers that remain absolute, such as her vitality and love of running (and that proves to have an important plot relevance, eventually). Otherwise, a lot of the potentially freighted moral choices dissolve with repetition and the fact that she has to take different sides of each issue depending on whom she wants to impress. The cumulative effect, at least for me, was that the protagonist came to seem less and less important, even as my playerly understanding of the other characters increased.

But then — well, let’s give this a spoiler jump first.

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Assorted Links

Boon Hill

Some while back, I posted about a then-being-kickstarted game called Boon Hill, all about exploring a graveyard full of epitaphs. That game is now on Steam Greenlight.

The XYZZY Award finalists are announced and IFDB has a handy list so that you can click through and play whichever ones you’d like to get to before voting closes.

Choice of Games is seeking more authors, especially authors with previous experience writing for interactivity. They pay royalties of 25% or, in some cases, work-for-hire fees amounting to $10K.

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Fungus is a recently-announced free Unity plugin for building interactive fiction. As far as I can tell it’s aiming for something closer to Ren’Py or AGT AGS than text-based IF experiences, but I haven’t had time to actually play with it yet.

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.

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Alfe Clemencio on interactive narrative in Don’t Save The World

Alfe Clemencio of Sakura River Interactive is the author of highly branching visual novels in Ren’Py. His previous work Fading Hearts features a wide range of possible player paths and outcomes; now he is working on an ambitious RPG project called Don’t Save the World. His Indiegogo page describes Don’t Save the World thus:

Don’t save the World: An RPG is a game where the effect of player’s choices are so strong they can change the genre of story and game. Live a life of adventure (RPG gamplay) or a normal life of running a shop (management-sim). Say “No” to saving the world!

…Near the end of the game gamers might be given the chance to slow down or stop the hero from defeating the dark lord.

I will guarantee that some players trying to be “good” will try to stop or slow down the hero.

In this scenario you are not the hero and won’t be defeating the dark lord. If the dark lord isn’t stopped then all the lands will be flooded with monsters that will bring the cities and towns to ruin. The hero is definitely a good person and is trying to do good.

It’s because moral choices like this that morality meters won’t work for this kind of game. Can you figure out why gamers trying to do good would do something like stop the hero?

Here he talks about that project, about the challenges of managing highly-branching narrative, and about the moral elements he is hoping to explore in his new work.

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Mini-Ludum Dare 27

Last weekend there was a mini Ludum Dare — an online game jam — focusing on conversational games and encouraging people to try Inform, Undum, Ren’Py, and other text-heavy engines. There were thirty entries and I haven’t tried all of them, but some thoughts on the ones I sampled:

Leaks is an Undum piece that presents the backstory to a poem. Technically it’s doing something rather cool: new stanzas of the poem appear in the sidebar as the reader makes progress through the story. The story itself could use quite a bit of polish, as there are a bunch of non-native English errors, and it is initially somewhat confusing what is going on and how the different passages of text relate to one another. It’s also extremely linear. All the same, it’s an interesting example of what Undum can do with juxtaposing and reordering text. (See also The Matter of the Monster.)

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