After watching To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I couldn’t particularly give a rave-review. I thought the dialogue wasn’t great, the setting was a bit weird, and overall was just a bit hard-to-get-through. However, after watching the film, I proceeded to read a piece about Romantic-Comedies by Tamar Jeffers McDonald. In it, she talks about general responses to the genre as a whole, writing, “Romcoms are viewed as ‘guilty pleasures’ which should be below one’s notice but, Jo Berry and Angie Errigo suggest, which satisfy because they provide easy, uncomplicated pleasures”. Nevertheless, she goes on to argue that the appeal which romcoms provide to their audience is more complex that that. Having read this argument, and having thought about it in relation to my own reactions to the movie, it left me wondering: “Were my feelings on the movie biased in some way by the general sentiments towards the Romantic-Comedy genre?” “Did my distaste for the movie stem from some elitist viewpoint?” I wouldn’t particularly describe myself as a romcom-hater, but maybe it was forming under the surface…
Overall, I just wanted to understand my own reactions to the movie in order to, maybe, get a better understanding of where they were coming from. Were they due to bias, or was the movie really not that good? So, I thought it would be best to talk with other people who had watched the film. Interestingly, most of the reactions to the film were positive. Most people liked it. But, perhaps more interestingly, no one gave their review praising the individual aspects of the movie, like the characters, the plot, or the dialogue, but spoke more about the overall enjoyable viewing-experience. They seemed to like how the movie overall made them feel, rather than specific aspects of the movie, which hurt my feelings towards the movie. Perhaps I was too bogged down with the different parts of the film that I didn’t appreciate it as a whole… However, one person’s review of the movie made me rethink this. It was their second time watching, and they recounted really enjoying it on their first-watch. But, on their second-watch, they became increasingly frustrated with the dialogue and the plot. Aside from feeling somewhat justified on my opinion of the movie, it prompted another question: “Is, let’s say, second-watch-fatigue symptomatic of the genre as a whole, or specific to this movie?”
Part of the appeal of the romcom genre is, possibly, the foregone conclusion. Usually, when watching such films, it is quite obvious who will get together, and indeed that they will get together. So, I wouldn’t assume that knowing the ending is the source of a less-enjoyable second-watch. Thinking about this, my attention went to a common theme brought up when I was discussing the movie with other people who had watched it, namely cliché. Even amongst the people who enjoyed the movie, a common sentiment was along the lines of, “even though it was pretty clichéd, I still liked it”. So, possibly, a commonly-used cliché can be somewhat charming on first-viewing, but feels played-out when seen again. I still wondered, though, about the tendency to describe the aspects of romcoms as clichés, rather than tropes. Again, I think this goes full circle back to the beginning of the post, when I talked about McDonald’s paper about the genre. I still feel that the general view on romcoms is somehow that they are “lesser” or just pure entertainment, and thus are described with “lesser” vocabulary, even amongst people who enjoy the genre.
In conclusion, after both watching the movie and reading the paper, I feel that I will be much more conscious about my reactions towards romcoms, and what I get out of watching them. If you ever get around to watching the film, try to think about what I wrote in my post, and see whether how much the specific aspects, i.e. dialogue, plot, shape your feelings about the movie!
Return of the Obra Dinn, created by Lucas Pope and released in 2018, is a game primarily about clues. This makes sense, as Obra Dinn is ostensibly a detective game and clues are a necessary part of the detective genre in any medium. The way Return of the Obra Dinn presents its clues though, and how the player interacts with and makes sense of them, is unique in a way that makes most of the gameplay experience extremely satisfying. It also heavily relies on, while also subtly subverting, many of the tropes of detective genre fiction as a whole to similarly satisfying ends.
The plot of the game revolves around the central mystery of its title ship. The Obra Dinn was lost at sea in 1803, but has now returned to port with all 60 of its crew and passengers seemingly missing. You play as an insurance claims adjuster for the British East India company who has been tasked with finding out what befell each person aboard the Obra Dinn in order to award or charge their respective estates. The specific backstory of your player character and the greater context for the narrative is fairly unimportant to the game itself though. What is important is that there is now a case to solve. Instead of just one or two bodies though, as in more standard detective literature, there are sixty fates (the game specifically uses this term, as several people who were aboard the Obra Dinn are still alive) to solve the who, what, where, when, and hopefully why of. Already the game is both playing into and playing with genre tropes, and the actual gameplay hasn’t even started.
Once aboard the ship you are presented with the two objects which you will actually use to solve these fates, which also represent the two major gameplay mechanics: a book containing all the information you’ll need about the Obra Dinna and its shipmates, and a magical stopwatch. The book provides you with lots of information from the start, including the names, nationalities, and jobs of everyone on board the Obra Dinn, a map of the ship itself, and an illustration of everyone who was on board. It is also where you fill in the outcomes of every person’s fate as you discover them. The provides the game with its most unique and memorable mechanic though. When you find a corpse aboard the ship (and you will find a lot of corpses) you can use the stopwatch to see a frozen, three-dimensional tableau of the moment of that person’s death, as well as hear a short audio clip of the seconds leading up to it. These tableaus are where the game provides the vast majority of the clues you will use to deduce all of the fates. Virtually everything in them can be used as clues to help you, from the character models, to the dialogue heard, to the accents used, to the objects seen on board, to how people stand in relation to one another. Everything presented in these vignettes can then be compared with the information you’re given in the book and used to put down the identity of the person who died, what their cause of death was, and who, if anyone, was responsible for killing them. The only restriction on making these guesses is that the game only confirms them in sets of three, so as to discourage random, brute-force guesswork.
All of these gameplay elements and mechanics add up to make Return of the Obra Dinn a game that does fit squarely within the rules of classic detective fiction. The clues presented to pretty much all fall in line with how detective stories are ‘supposed’ to present their clues, as outlined by Marie Rodell or in the compilations by Howard Haycraft. No clues are explicitly hidden from the player, even the most obscure ones. Once you see all of the tableaus, and there are much fewer tableaus than there are individual fates to solve, you have everything you need to solve every one of the fates, even if it might not seem like it at first. The true fun of the game comes from exploring all of the tableaus in-depth, and finding pieces of information that lock together some identity, be it a tag on a hammock, or a hand cupped to someone’s ear, or line of dialogue in Russian. This aspect of gameplay is where Obra Dinn gets to play with the genre tropes of detective fiction. Here, the main aspects of the murders that are most compelling to figure out aren’t usually the cause of death or even what the killer looks like, as those are typically pieces of information directly presented to you in as the main focus of each tableau. Instead, the unknowns come in the form of specific identities, character relations, and personal details. Furthermore, a lot of the fun of standard detective stories is the so-called ‘library scene’, where the detective gathers the relevant parties in a library and goes about explaining the solutions to whole mystery of the story; who’s guilty of committing the murder, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. A good detective story should build to a satisfying library scene for the reader or viewer, either because they have figured out the mystery along with the detective, or because everything the detective says makes total sense and fits into seemingly obvious place. In Return of the Obra Dinn, there is no big ‘library scene’ reveal at the end of the game. Sure, there is an epilogue that explains some of the unknown details of the plot, but not in a way that radically changes what the player already knows by that point. There are however, lots and lots of miniature library scenes baked in throughout the game. They happen whenever you finally realize that the tags on hammocks correspond to the numbers on the crew log, or when you see the accident with the rigging that killed someone’s brother mentioned in another scene, or when you narrow down who actually shot the man through the wall amidst the chaos of monster crabs attacking. These little moments of revelation and piecing-together of small stories are the core of what makes Obra Dinn engaging to play, and provide the same type of satisfaction that’s found at the end of a good detective story sprinkled all throughout the game’s playthrough. Obra Dinn also seems to lean into this feeling of lots of ‘library scenes’ with how it actually confirms the fates for you. Every time you get three fates correct the game stops and opens the book to the pages of the fates you solved correctly, typesetting the information of each person’s demise or survival into the book one at a time with a satisfactory music cue punctuating each one. These moments highlight the personal moments of revelation that you have by providing textual confirmation, almost in a “Clue”-like way that, “yes you were right, it was Henry Brennan on the Gun Deck with a club that killed that man”.
The plot of the game itself does not appear to be the most important thing to its experience. It involves mutiny, magical shells, sea monsters, and many unfortunate accidents, but is not particularly unique in its tale. The way you discover that story though, via bits and pieces spread throughout smaller vignettes of death and betrayal, all wrapped up in clues, satisfying gameplay, and design that incorporates and subverts many aspects of classic detective fiction, is what make Return of the Obra Dinn highly successful both as an engaging game and a piece of the detective genre.
Howard Hawk’s classic Bringing Up Baby is a prime example of the screwball comedy at the height of its popularity in the 1930s. It has quick dialogue, zany characters and an ultimately light hearted story filled with comedic moments. The story does however deal with the romance, albeit maybe one sided, between its two protagonists Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. With elements of both comedy and romance, the next logical question would be to ask if Bringing Up Baby could be labeled as a RomCom? I’ll use this blog post to go over the narrative of the film, then using definitions of the narrative structure of RomComs by Geoff King and Tamar Jeffers McDonald, try to identify the elements in Bringing Up Baby that mirror tropes of the modern RomCom. In doing so, I hope to paint Bringing Up Baby, not as a definitive RomCom, but as a precursor to what would become the modern version of the genre.
The story follows David Huxley (Grant), a mild mannered paleontologist looking to secure a million dollar donation for his museum from a woman who is giving away money. When going to play a golf game with the woman’s attorney, he runs into Susan Vance, a free spirited upper class woman who quickly falls in love with David. Unbeknownst to him, however, Susan is the niece of the older woman. She introduces to a leopard, drags him across state lines and the two get entangled in hijinks through a number of comedic situations. Throughout the movie, Susan tries to get her and David together, but he constantly tries to get rid of her and denies her advances. Eventually however, David tells Susan that he has enjoyed spending all that time with her and the film ends on a happy note.
Does it RomCom?
The film has elements of comedy, along with at least one character with a romantic motivations toward another character, so is that enough to call it a RomCom by today’s standards? To answer this question, we will use the work of authors Geoff King and Tamar Jeffers McDonald to learn about the defining features of the narrative structure of the RomCom and how we can trace them to what we see in Bringing Up Baby.
First we start with King, who in his book Film Comedy, mentions that the first element of the RomCom is that “romance is the main and foregrounded element of the narrative, rather than occupying a secondary position” and the romance portrayed in the film is “treated lightly, as a matter of comedy rather than of more ‘seriously’ dramatic or melodramatic relationships” (King, 51). Finally, he mentions that what separates the RomCom from other films involving romance, such as the melodrama, is that the film concludes with a happy ending.
Next we turn to McDonald, author of the book Romantic Comedy, in which she offers a master definition of the RomCom genre. “The romantic comedy”, she says “is a film which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a lighthearted way”, and similar to what we have already seen, “…almost always to a successful conclusion” (MacDonald, 9).
The RomCom Checklist
Taking both of these definitions into account, it seems clear that the narrative structure Bringing Up Baby follows these definitions. But can we do better? Is there a more comprehensive way that we can classify what we see in Bringing Up Baby to what we would see in the modern RomCom? Well for that, we can return to McDonald, who has at the end of her book an appendix which includes common tropes found in romantic comedies. Out of the 10 tropes most commonly found in romantic comedies, we can identify 3 which are in Bringing Up Baby: Falling Over/Slapstick, The Adversarial relationship turning to love and the Meet Cute. Let’s take a look at how we see this developed within the narrative of the film.
McDonald defines the Meet Cute as the meeting where “… the lovers-to-be first encounter each other in a way which forecasts their eventual union” (MacDonald, 8). In Bringing Up Baby, Susan and David meet when they bump into each other while playing golf, and Susan ends up distracting David from his meeting with the attorney.
This plays into our next identified trope, which is the adversarial relationship turned to love. King states “The protagonists of romantic comedies are often established at the start as adversaries – either directly in conflict or as embodiments of different qualities, or both – whose differences are eventually reconciled”(King, 53). As we have noted, Susan and David continuously butt heads throughout the film, owing to their contrasting attitudes and the fact that they are carried by different motivations.
Finally looking at the slapstick comedy trope, gags such as characters falling over, misdirections through a mixup of identities and exaggerations in dialogue are all used to get laughs out of the audience. This also serves to reinforce that the romance is presented in a light hearted manner, differentiating it from how romance is presented in melodramas.
After reviewing the materials, checking in with two separate definitions for the narrative structure of the RomCom genre, and trying to match common tropes with elements found in the film, can we definitively call Bringing Up Baby a RomCom? I think the answer is not as straightforward. While the narrative structure as described by King and McDonald for RomComs fits Bringing Up Baby, more than half the tropes usually found in romantic comedies are absent from Howard Hawks’s film. I think the film is better thought of as a precursor to the genre, a step in the right direction towards the development of the tropes associated with the modern RomCom.
One of my favorite experiences playing a tabletop role playing game is one called Monster of the Week. It puts a more modern spin on the typical fantasy genre, with characters using computers, guns, cell phones, and more to take down monsters in the present day. Character archetypes include tech savvy scientists, mysterious cultists, and my personal favorite: the hard-boiled detective. You get lots of cool detective abilities, like the ability to avoid lethal damage while you have a case on your hands, and the ability to detect when a criminal is lying. The character archetype is all about uncovering information, and sleuthing out the truth. This driving motivation is a common character trait detectives have across different forms of media, and games are no exception.
Enter A Hand With Many Fingers.
A Hand With Many Fingers is a “first person investigative thriller” according to Colestia, the developers, on their itch.io page. At first glance, this holds up; the game is in a first person perspective, and the main point of the game is to investigate a real world Cold War conspiracy using documents uncovered in a CIA archive. However, I believe that a more informative description of the game is “corkboard simulator.” This is because the main gameplay loop in this game involves updating two massive corkboards with information you uncover in the archive. Managing these corkboards is one of the best gameplay mechanics I’ve ever seen. It allows for so much freedom and creativity in the investigative process, and really makes you feel like you’re one of those hard boiled detectives uncovering a case bit by bit. And yet, with all the detective-y vibes that the main character gives off, we know almost nothing about the character you play as. There are neither mirrors nor reflections in the game that show us who we are controlling. No voice acting or inner monologue either; the main character is very much a silent protagonist. It’s assumed that the main character has some connection with the conspiracy they are trying to uncover, but there is nothing concrete we can pin down.
And honestly, that’s ok.
Who you play as in A Hand With Many Fingers isn’t important, what’s important is the actions that the character (and therefore the player) is able to take. It gives the player the ability to project whatever traits they want onto the main character, and leaves the story in the hands of the articles and photographs you find in the archive. The documents the player finds are created by the developers, who stitched together real world information to create them. There really was a bank called the Nugan Hand Bank in Australia. John Nugan, one of the two co-founders of the bank, was found dead in his car in 1980. There is a lot of shady, under the table dealings regarding this bank, and it’s up to the player to uncover what’s really going on here.
So… how does this game work?
There’s a simple gameplay loop that the player is able to follow. First, you have to find a person, place, and time you want to research. For example, when you start the game, you are given a newspaper clipping with the following details highlighted: John Nugan, Sydney, Australia, and 1980. Each important piece of information is highlighted a different color, red for names, yellow for locations, and blue for dates. Once you have all the information, check the card catalog for any possible connections. Any documents that connect all three pieces of information will have a reference number attached to them. Go into the archives to find the box that is labeled with said reference number. Bring the box up to your office, and unpack any articles, pictures, or other important pieces of paper. Then, you can place these documents on the corkboards in your office, to better organize your thoughts, and piece information together. You will derive new people, places, and time periods over the course of your archiving adventure, and will be able to repeat this process over and over to discover as much information about the conspiracy as you can. The game does not stray from this gameplay loop at all. There are no combat encounters, or chase sequences, just methodical archiving and studying. This is not a bad thing at all; the gameplay is extremely compelling by itself, especially the corkboard mechanic.
There are two big corkboards in your office, one blank one, and one with a map. The map automatically updates with any locations mentioned in any documents you find, and serves as an easy way for a player whose geography skills are somewhat lackluster (like me) to find locations easier. You can stick papers anywhere on either board, and connect related documents with red string. Any pictures of important people are affixed to the board with red push pins instead of normal blue ones. The boards do not allow for players to overlap or discard any documents you find. This makes it almost impossible for the player to lose, forget, or misplace information. Real archival work does not have a self-updating map, color-coded, pre-highlighted information you need, or pieces of evidence that refuse to be discarded. All of these serve to make this process more enjoyable, and less frustrating. They can make anybody feel like they have hard-boiled detective skills. You really are uncovering a conspiracy here, all by yourself…
…and there might be some people who don’t like that very much.
This is where the “thriller” aspect of “first-person investigative thriller” comes in. The archives are quite large, with tons of locked rooms the player can’t enter and a multitude of boxes that the player will never even touch. There are hundreds of names, each with their own reference numbers and documents attached to them. Over the course of the game, you will only follow 5 of these names. This helps convey a sense of scale, and makes the emptiness of the archives feel oppressive. There are other ways they conveyed this emptiness; one particularly memorable one was a small radio playing serene classical music on loop. I turned it off after a little bit because it started to annoy me, but then I realized the silence of the archives was much too unnerving for me to continue. This emptiness is carefully crafted, and when something breaks it, it can feel even scarier. A phone rings while the player is in the basement, but when they pick it up, the line is dead. A car idles outside the archives for a little while, and then leaves once the player stares at them for too long. You are being watched, and it’s incredibly unsettling.
The nice thing about A Hand With Many Fingers as a detective game is that despite all of the spooky atmosphere, the game is designed to make the experience of discovering information extremely palatable. The driving force behind detective stories in other media is a search for the truth. As stated earlier, this drive for truth is an important motivating factor most detectives have as an important character trait. However, in A Hand With Many Fingers, it doesn’t matter what the truth actually is, what matters is the journey to uncover it. If the truth did matter, the developers would not have designed each piece of evidence themselves, they would have simply used real world documents and designed the game around them. Chaining together pieces of evidence is extremely satisfying, and they wanted to ensure that this journey to uncover the truth was well paced and designed. It was always about journey, not the destination, and this is exemplified in the game’s ending
As the player progresses through the game, they start to find reference numbers stored in boxes that state that some boxes are marked for destruction. If they look in one of these boxes, they find a key to an unused annex of the building, where one final box awaits them. When they return to their office, they are greeted with a nasty surprise. The car from earlier has crashed into the office, and no one is sitting behind the wheel. Just like the phone call, there’s no one who responds to the player…
…and then the game ends! There’s no confirmation that what you’ve been working on all this time is correct. We aren’t given any information regarding the player character’s relationship to the Nugan Bank scandal. Just a fade to black when the player puts the final documents on the corkboard. This hammers home that the most important part of this story is not the conspiracy itself, but the journey that the player undergoes to find all of the information about it. While this does differ from most other detective stories in media, where the story is tied up with a pretty bow and the wrongdoer is caught, I believe that the experience A Hand With Many Fingers creates shows the joy of simply finding the truth.
Katawa Shoujo is defined by its official website as a “bishoujo-style visual novel set in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern Japan.”There are a couple of translations of the title circulating around the web, but the one that’s on the official website is “Disability Girls.” While the game credits its development to a company named “Four Leaf Studios,” that’s actually a name for a coalition of 4chan forum users, who created this game over the course of five years based on an illustration posted there in 2007. Even the game’s opening credits use the usernames of the 4chan users as opposed to full names.
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge a few points. Firstly, this discussion will contain some major spoilers for Katawa Shoujo. Given how the game’s narrative is so tightly wound up with its mechanics, as I’ll discuss soon, it’s not really possible to meaningfully talk about Katawa Shoujo as a romance, comedy, tragedy, or even a game without spoiling things. Secondly, I am not an expert on portrayals of disability in media and fiction and can’t speak with any sort of proficiency to whether or not Katawa Shoujo’s portrayals of disabilities are realistic or not, or sensitive or not. (Or a mix of all of those, depending on which character and scene in the game.) Lastly, this game does contain adult content and sex scenes, although all subsequent content and screenshots below are safe for work.
Her Story is a 2015 FMV detective mystery game by Sam Barlow. Throughout the game, the player acts as an unidentified investigator of sorts, gleaning through a police database of video clips from seven interrogations of a woman, Hannah Smith, to solve the murder case of her husband Simon (initially presumed missing) in 1994. The only information on the game’s objective right off the bat comes in the form of saved files on the desktop that explain the premise of searching through clips and compiling the story behind the murder case. As a player, you type keywords into the database’s search bar to unlock clips that include the words you searched, but only have access to the first five clips that appear from the interrogations chronologically. The game begins with the word “MURDER” already typed into the search bar, which primes the player for perceiving the game as a murder mystery. Other functions accessible as a player are the tagging function, which allow you to add tags to video clips to sort them into related categories, and the add to session function, which saves video clips in a bar at the bottom of the database to return to later. The Database Checker on the home screen indicates how many clips out of 271 available, varying in length and content, the player has already viewed. The ChitChat app, a messenger program, appears on the screen after unlocking most of the story, at which point the player can finish the game without having viewed all of the interrogation clips.
The game’s lack of chronology emphasizes the self-directedness of the player unravelling the narrative. Beyond the initial keyword given, “MURDER,” it’s entirely possible for players to find clips in arbitrary orders as there’s no set approach to uncovering the mystery. Where one player might decide to search “Simon” after watching a few clips, another may opt to look up “Dead,” which would result in an entirely different set of search outcomes. This feature ensures the game doesn’t feel simply like a passive movie-watching experience, but instead like a proactive deep-dive hunt into a tangled web of secrets, searching for discrepancies in the story. The player never hears the questions asked to Hannah Smith, only the responses she gives to the questions, although the game’s dialogue does well to suggest what might have been asked.
As the player progresses through the database of clips, getting bits and pieces of the full, convoluted story based on seemingly important phrases uttered by Hannah Smith in her tapes, it quickly becomes clear that the narrative isn’t as simple as a vengeful wife murdering her husband. Through various keywords that are casually dropped into the dialogue, like “blonde,” or “mirror,” the player soon realizes that Hannah Smith might not be just Hannah Smith. Or that, perhaps Hannah isn’t the only one involved in Simon’s death.
Her Story as a Detective Game
Marie Rodell in Mystery Fiction, Theory and Technique explains that clues in the detective fiction genre come in two varieties: tangible and intangible. Of the tangible variety, those pertaining to the five senses, clues must be adequately described in words such that they are recognizable to the reader (50). For intangible clues, such as the appearance of an item whose function or origin is unknown, the reader must be given a realistic opportunity to determine its significance in the plot (51-52). Because of Her Story‘s FMV video game format, most tangible clues in the game are not presented to the players themselves, but instead to the detectives within the game who investigated the diegetic crime scene; clues like fingerprints, fibers from a wig, a guitar, and a broken watch all appear as key clues within the game, but are revealed to the player through Hannah’s acknowledgment that the detectives discovered that evidence, not the player’s own discovery. The few tangible clues given to the player in the game come through the form of visual observation, things like a tattoo, hairstyles, and a bruise. Intangible clues on the other hand, which are important to deciphering the mystery of twins at the heart of the game, result from close observation of the dialogue. Once the player has discerned that Hannah could also be Eve, a secret twin sister, the way the two sisters talk about subjects as mundane as coffee versus tea or as personal as sex is potentially the only way to rule out who is who. Additionally, some of the clips to uncover during the investigation process are essentially duplicates of the same question or scenario answered in slightly different ways, such as clips on separate interrogation dates regarding Hannah and Simon’s wedding, answered from what seems like different perspectives, or two “blink and you’ll miss it” clips of both Hannah and Eve staring into the camera and asking if it’s recording. Rodell argues, “It is from the actions and words of such suspects, and their behavior toward other characters in the story, that the detective and the reader deduce the probability of motive in the suspect,” (56). Actions and words are at the core of uncovering what “her story” is.
Actions on behalf of Hannah and Eve, such as theories regarding which twin uses her left hand as the dominant one and which uses her right, or attempts to decipher the “knock-code” that Hannah and Eve use to communicate to each other in the interrogation, are of great importance. Words, however, are potentially even more important than actions. Because of the twin mystery at play, Eve and Hannah’s attempt to line up their stories occasionally fall short, their details not adding up to one coherent story. While one accidentally claims infertility before correcting herself, the other mentions being pregnant at the time of the interrogation. Where one, as mentioned previously, seems to prefer coffee and talking openly about sex, the other prefers tea and keeping intimate affairs private. The player’s ability to keep track of these minute details affects the ultimate interpretation of the game’s ending, considering there is arguably some ambiguity regarding who truly killed Simon in the end, and who is subsequently sent to jail for committing the crime. One of Her Story’s major strengths is that its subtlety allows for several interpretations to the ending. Have these interrogations clips been Eve pretending to be Hannah the whole time? Did Hannah and Eve collaborate in covering up the murder and from then on been tag-teaming the interrogation and struggling to keep their stories straight? Did Eve kill Hannah in an attempt to lead her own life for once? These, among other theories, are all plausible.
Rodell also argues, however, that, “If the criminal is caught in the end because he forgets at some moment to be alert, praise for the solution of the mystery cannot fairly go to detective or reader: the solution has depended on a weakness of the murderer’s, not on a talent of the detective’s,” (57). Slip-ups in the twins’ narratives are pretty crucial in realizing that they are, in fact, twins. While this may be considered a weakness in detective fiction, because the ability to pick up on the discrepancies or failure to be “alert” on Hannah/Eve’s behalf is dependent upon the player’s listening ability amongst a large number of clips found on their own rather than being guided toward specific details by an author, Her Story never comes across as a disappointment in terms of discovering its myster/y/ies.
The nonlinear format combined with the ability to only view five chronological clips at a time delays the revelation of mystery over time, since the majority of the story is revealed in the seventh and final interrogation, which is likely to be hidden from the player in the first five clips accessible on any search. The game’s dialogue drops heavy-handed hints, however, that lead the player down a trail that early on suggests where the story is going. For instance, the repetition of words and themes like “mirror,” “reflection,” and “symmetry,” even in the protagonists’ names–palindromes Eve and Hannah–as well as the Easter egg of a mini game called “mirror tiles” hidden in the trash on the desktop clues the player in to the fact that twins are a possibility. Additionally, clips that reiterate the fantasy-like narrative by mentioning fairy tales such as Rapunzel thematically manifest the game’s plot: the storybook tale of twins separated at birth, one bound to the other by the fact that her identity is intrinsically linked to the other’s existence, share a life together and fall for the same Prince Charming.
Her Story’s mystery comes not only through deciphering how exactly Simon was murdered, who committed the crime, and why they did it, but also who exactly you as a player are embodying. Because the player isn’t sure who they are, the motivation behind wanting to explore this mystery is also unknown, and isn’t revealed until the very end. Before suggesting via the ChitChat function that you are done investigating, which prompts the ending sequence of the game, the only clues to suggest the player’s identity are flashes of a reflection on the computer monitor which only appear whenever a key video clip to the story has been viewed. The layered mysteries presented in Her Story add not only intrigue to the experience of playing the game, but also push back against complacency in its completion. Will finding all 271 clips result in a more fleshed-out understanding of the plot than ending the game? In terms of the ultimate ending that every player receives, no. But, the player’s individual opinion on the story is likely to be determined by the clips that they found and what they gleaned from each individual clip.
Rodell, Marie. “Clues.” Mystery Fiction, Theory and Technique, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943, pp. 49-60.
The Forest is a first person open-world survival game with a horror twist. In the opening sequence your character, survivalist Eric Leblanc, experiences a plane crash while traveling with his young son Timmy. The crash disorients your character, and one of the last things you see before falling unconscious is a human figure picking up Timmy and carrying him away. Once you regain consciousness, the game truly begins. Armed with a survival guide, a small axe, and whatever small items you pick up around in the plane, you step out into the forest to begin your adventure.
The Forest as a Robinsonade: Cannibals
In The Forest, your character is given a few meters to determine how urgently basic things like food, water, and rest are needed. Without securing food and clean water multiple times a day, you will become weak and possibly die. Those aren’t the only dangers; if you fall into a body of water or it rains at night, you must build a fire or otherwise die of hypothermia. If you’re wandering around in the dark you’ll need a small light to navigate, and that light may lead cannibals directly to you.
In Robinson Crusoe, the titular character is stranded on a seemingly uninhabited island, the lone survivor of a shipwreck. While Crusoe spends his days in solitude at first, he comes to realize that he is not completely alone after all; there are “savage” cannibals who visit the island, and his interactions with them spark violent confrontations. Those plot points feel especially familiar in the context of The Forest, signaling the game’s ties to the genre of the Robinsonade. It is up to the player to take up the role of the industrious and resourceful explorer, learning about the environment and trying to build towards a life while fighting or avoiding these dangerous adversaries.
As the game continues from the first day, you slowly begin to find different kinds of evidence and information about the cannibals. Early on, you may just see a few figures off in the distance. Then you start to notice scary effigies around the forest, tall poles with heads or strange markers made of human skin on top, which seem to mark the territory cannibals frequent. Continuing on, you find a pond full of fresh water, but across the pond you see a few huts situated around a bonfire. In this way, the setting builds to imply the danger of the inhabitants of the island before you even inspect close enough to find human body parts strewn around their little camp. All of these things are enough to put you on edge, but it’s even scarier to hear them calling to each other in the forest as they approach and prepare to attack. Unlike in Robinson Crusoe, you’re much more likely to wind up hanging upside down in a cannibal cave than to find a friend in their crowd.
The Forest as a Robinsonade: Using and Exploring the Environment
One thing that set Robinson Crusoe apart as a character in the eyes of his readers was his perseverance; while on the island, he learns what resources are available for him to use on this island, and he works to create a more stable life for himself, taking up subsistence gardening and hunting. Over the course of decades he not only maintained a decent life but continuously tried to improve his conditions. This game maintains that aspect of the Robinsonade with a variety of possible things to construct and parts of the peninsula to explore.
Shelter is one of the first things you’re instructed to find or build in the game. You may start with temporary shelters until you acquire enough logs to build a proper cabin, but ultimately, something permanent is ideal, as a permanent shelter gives you the opportunity to save your game progress and rest for the night without being attacked by the cannibals. Larger cabins require at least 80 logs, which means cutting down at least 20 trees, or potentially even more if you choose to build a custom home or furniture. You can also build gardens to grow edible plants, and make animal traps to catch rabbits for food. Once you have shelter established, you can begin to spend more time exploring the woods, discovering new plants, animals, and mushrooms that will be added to your survival guide. However, some plants and mushrooms are poisonous, so as you explore you will need to be careful choosing which ones to eat. The more knowledge you gain about your environment and how to interact with it, the safer you’ll be and the more potential you will have for surviving in stability and even comfort.
Mystery and Isolation in the Forest
The incorporation of mystery into the Robinsonade was likely popularized by the publication of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. In that novel, the protagonists land on a presumably uninhabited island and over time begin to see signs that someone else lives there, a helpful stranger who quietly interferes any time the protagonists are in trouble. The Forest incorporates the ideas of mystery and isolation with the previously mentioned tension of seeing hints of the cannibals around the peninsula, particularly because the cannibals seem to live and work in groups and thus have a way of organizing together that is inaccessible to you as a single person. Even more than that, this game has an optional plot that ties back to the very first sequence.
As mentioned, in the opening scene your son is carried away by a human-looking figure. When your character wakes up, “Find Timmy” is the first item on the to-do list located near the back of the survival guide. Finding Timmy involves entering a number of caves in the area and poking around for clues. Those clues will eventually lead you to a secret underground laboratory where, up until recently, researchers worked on creating mutants and studying obelisks before they all fled or died. Rather than the mysterious benefactor described by Verne, at the heart of all this you will discover the story of a mad scientist, Timmy’s location, and an explanation for how you ended up crash-landing on this specific peninsula. Once you uncover the most important pieces of information, you have a choice to make that will determine if you get rescued at great cost or learn to accept your circumstances and remain alone, trying to survive indefinitely.
Early Access and Survival
This game was originally released on early access for PC in the spring of 2014, with regular updates, both major and minor, over the course of a few years, before the full version was released in May of 2018. The PlayStation4 version debuted in November of 2018. Early access releases lend themselves well to survival games such as this one because they provide a sort of meta-exploration experience for players. Not only were players able to venture out into this virtual world and log new plants and animals, but they also got the experience of seeing a landscape change and watching their relationships with certain items become different over time. For example, in earlier versions of the game, poisonous mushrooms produced hallucinogenic effects in the character when consumed. Over time, the game developers updated the game to remove the hallucination potential, trading it out for another cool trick: the ability to use poisonous mushrooms to craft poison arrows. Even the safe mushrooms got a boost with an update that allowed players to grow them in cave gardens.
The game developers even added updates with different modes for different playing experiences. About a year after the initial early access release, a multiplayer function was added, with players now able to collaborate on all the projects involved with surviving, such as building shelters, collecting materials, and fighting cannibals. Additionally, early on there was a cheat called “vegan mode” that allowed you to play the open world part of the game without ever encountering cannibals. Their belongings and camps would still be around, but the cannibals never appear. Similarly, a “vegetarian mode” cheat was established, where cannibals still existed but only ever came out at night. Vegetarian mode was never made official, but Vegan mode was renamed “Peaceful Mode” and added as an official difficulty mode for players to select when starting the game. Not only were early access players exploring a new landscape within the confines of the game, they were also on the frontier of new modes of experiencing this game, testing the limits with cheat codes and then playing the official game modes. As they played each new update, they could find possible glitches or provide feedback through reviews on what kinds of new additions they would like to see in future updates. The developers of early access games therefore used feedback from players, including popular cheat codes, to decide what to do to make the game more appealing to its users. A survival game, therefore, is a particularly appropriate medium for experimenting with early access releases, because the game asks the players to alter the environment to suit their wants and needs. Players can change the environment within the game by cutting down trees, building new structures, and more, and then they can exit the game and have a dialogue with developers about how to shape the environment even further to suit them. For that reason, this method of game development helped tremendously in making The Forest a successful game with a vibrant online community.
Jones, Ian. “The Robinsonade.” MAAD 25630 Videogames and Genre Storytelling, 7 May 2020, Prezi presentation.
CONTENT WARNING This game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted in these depictions.
Hello, who are you? …It doesn’t matter. Welcome. You are safe with me. I’ll be right here, nice and close so I can speak without alerting the others. Let me tell you about Senua. Her story has already come to an end but now, it begins anew. This is a journey deep into darkness. There will be no more stories after this one.
In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Senua embarks on a journey through Hel (the land of the dead in Norse mythology) to save her beloved Dillion. On her quest, Senua fights monsters and gods from Norse mythology. Now, unlike every classic hero story, Senua also suffers from psychotic mental illness that makes her journey of suffering happen in the real world as well as the world constructed in her mind. Joined by her inner voices and haunted by the insulting and demoralizing Shadow, Senua powers through immense combat challenges, traumatic flashbacks, and vivid hallucinations.
While Senua does indeed fight Surtr, Valravn, and Gram on her quest, Senua’s story situates itself as a journey of emotional and mental change rather than a physical one. In the end, Senua is unable to save Dillion even though she confronts Hela about it. However, Senua manages to identify the Shadow as none other than the inner manifestation of the treatment she received from her abusive father growing up. She accepted the voices in her head not as a curse but as a part of who she is.
As one might imagine, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an intensely tragic game. One hears when Senua screams, sees her go through an emotional breakdown multiple times, and gets a courtside ticket to witness her suffering. One goes through the game and is forced to “weep for the misfortune of a hero, to whom we are attached” (Hume 260). Nonetheless, as the credits roll, one is left with “agreeable sorrow, and tears that delight us” (Hume 260). Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is another entry on the list of tragic games that highlight the paradox of tragedy.
In Of Tragedy, David Hume addresses this essential paradox as he attempts to reason about how one can be delighted with a spectacle that tells a tragic story filled with sorrow, terror, anxiety, and grief. While Hume starts his essay referring to catharsis when he says “employ tears, sobs, and cries to give vent to their sorrow, and relieve their heart” (258), he addresses the paradox by analyzing the role of fiction, the impact of stylistic means, as well as the relationship between competing emotions. Hume’s essay presents us with tools to analyze some of the key details presented in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Through this analysis, we look at the historic background of the game, the process that went into producing it, as well as some of the critical emotions in the story being told.
Nothing but a Fiction
Hume argues that while the spectacle might capture all one’s attention, the spectator’s awareness that they are viewing a fictitious performance diminishes the pain and affliction. In other words, one can digest this agreeable sorrow and comfort themselves as it is “nothing but a fiction” (Hume 258). If one is to look at Senua’s story, Hume’s argument gets complicated. The game tells a story of a Pict warrior living in a village in the 8th century near Orkney, Scotland. This game setting is emphasized in the narrative and is used to construct the environment and characters to reflect the Pictish history from blue body painting and hairstyle to costume design (Adcock 0:50 – 1:30). Moreover, the game is set in a historic period full of stories of the brutal Vikings raiding the isles where Orkney now stands. This poses a question as to whether Senua’s story might have occurred at one point or another. Given the setup, the line between the fictitious and the real parts of Senua’s story becomes blurry. Hume’s point on the role of fiction in tragic stories can account for a large sum of stories like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice where Orpheus (Senua) decides to descend to Hades (Hel) to see his (her) wife (boyfriend). However, it does not explain the full paradox displayed in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Eloquence, Genius, Art, Expression
Another way to understand the paradox presented in the game is to consider the “very eloquence” with which the game is delivered. Hume pays attention to the poetic and rhetorical elements of delivering tragic spectacle. He talks about “the genius required to paint objects”, “the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances”, and “the judgment displayed in disposing them” as talents that allow the orator to provide the most delightful movements. If one is to map these talents to modern-day game development, then Ninja Theory (the development studio) has managed to exercise them in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. This can be seen in the process of perfecting Senua’s movement and emotions through using professional actors and employing cutting-edge motion capture techniques and. It can also be seen in the authentic audio design in the game. As detailed by Ninja Theory in their developer diaries (Antoniades 0:20 – 1:53; Fletcher 0:47 – 2:12; Antoniades & Matthews 0:24 – 0:50), the game audio was built using binaural voice recording methods so players would feel the voices whispering in their ears and circling them. What’s more, Ninja theory developed the game under the supervision of professional psychiatrists to provide a detailed and immersive adaptation of psychotic mental illness. This attention to detail plays a key role in taking the emotions of uneasiness and sorrow presented in Senua’s story and converting them into a delightful strong movement as one is “rouzed by passion and charmed by eloquence” (Hume 261).
A Shift of Emotions
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes the player on an intense emotional journey as the player must face various setbacks during the whole gameplay. For example, a few hours into the game, Senua is defeated by Hela while crossing the bridge to Hel and is forced to recollect herself, obtain a new sword through the Odin trials, and attempt to go back to Hel. The tough moments for Senua do not stop here as she ends up losing Dillion’s skull five minutes after entering Hel during a chase, and the player is forced to descend into Hel to obtain the skull again. The game is full of these recurring moments where things go wrong, and the player is forced to find their way around it. Nonetheless, all the grief and sorrow from these recurring misfortunes is transformed once the player hears the upbeat notes in the ending scene and sees Senua accepting the voices in her head.
This is exactly what Hume talks about when he acknowledges that just the mere suffering of a hero does not fill us with delight (265). Thus, a tragic story ought to end in noble courageous despair or have the vice receive proper punishment to have this transformation of grief and sorrow to delight and pleasure occur. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice utilizes this concept to its benefit extremely well. When Senua confronts Hela in the final scene, she realizes that saving Dillion is not possible and asks Hela to kill her as there is nothing left to live for. At this point, the player had gone through an exhausting journey emotionally and mentally only to be left disappointed. However, to turn this climactic grief into delight, the player gets to see Senua waking up and throwing Dillion’s head into the abyss to show that Senua is now ready to move on. The scene continues with Senua accepting the voices in her head and getting ready to tell a new story as a sequence of upbeat notes play in the background.
As you might imagine, Hume was not the only philosopher to discuss the paradox of tragedy. However, in Hume’s framework of tragedy, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice checks a lot of the boxes on how uneasy emotions can be transformed into delightful ones. Now, it would be difficult to attribute the paradox of tragedy effect in the game to any single element discussed above. The effect takes place as a result of the interactions between the game background, the behind-the-scenes development work, as well as the story writing itself. What’s more, the game is filled with details from the environment building to the very few voice gasps. This means that another replay of the game ought to allow for an even more in-depth analysis of the tragedy element of Senua’s story.
Having considered all the elements, one can understand the different aspects of the tragic story told in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Senua’s story is filled with gloomy and traumatic moments that convey uneasiness, sorrow, and grief. At moments, the player is only left with unaccountable anxiety as they are one hit away from dying in a boss fight. The player witnesses Senua’s pain as she navigates her way through Hel. However, through genuine acting and formidable directing, these uneasy emotions are delivered meticulously as a part-fictional, noble, courageous story from which the player can derive satisfaction and delight. With Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory delivered an intense, emotional game filled with sorrow, terror, and anxiety that leaves its players with unaccountable pleasure, completing the paradox of tragedy as it has always been addressed.
Adcock, Stuart. “Hellblade Development Diary 2: Art Inspiration” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 1 September 2014, https://youtu.be/1ysfmiN-aSs.
Antoniades, Tameem. “Hellblade Development Diary 18: The Shoot Set Up” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 4 December 2015, https://youtu.be/FACTByOjqyQ.
Fletcher, Paul. “Hellblade Development Diary 12: The Mind of Senua” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 10 June 2015, https://youtu.be/zS6wHzwUDI4.
Hume, David. Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Vol. 1, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1875. Edited, with preliminary dissertations and notes, by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose
Matthews, Dominic. “Hellblade Development Diary 15: Binaural Audio Tests” YouTube, uploaded by Ninja Theory, 12 October 2015, https://youtu.be/gFdPXCzxMg8.
At its most simplistic description, Elsinore is a click-and-point adventure game where the player embodies Hamlet’s Ophelia. As the game unfolds, your abilities as a player expand. At the start, you learn that you are living through Shakespeare’s tragedy but you are able to interact with it by clicking on the characters around you and either following them or talking to them. You can only talk to people about information that you gather from others, stored in your electronic journal as “hearsay.” You also gain hearsay by following characters and listening in on their conversations. One of your main sources of agency in the game comes from your ability to distribute information to characters that might change their course of action— something we often long for as viewers of tragedy, when we want to warn Romeo that Juliet is simply sleeping or tell Hamlet that it’s not his uncle behind the curtain.
Another large source of agency comes at the end of Saturday (the story of Hamlet begins on a Thursday morning) after Hamlet has mistakenly killed your father, a hooded and masked figure simply titled “The Spy” (who you’ve likely heard about from listening in on royal meetings) walks up to your character and murders you. A black screen with a small animation of a lily pad and skull pops up and offers that you try again. You wake up in your bedroom as Ophelia on Thursday morning before all the tragedy has transpired.
You realize that you are somehow moving outside the flow of time and you gain the ability to both fast-forward time and to reset the time loop. The timeline feature that the player is introduced to in the first cycle suddenly takes on a new meaning. As you hear about events in the future or even set them into motion you will see them pop up on your timeline, if you want to jump ahead to this event you can simply fast forward your time to it. If you set something in motion that is unlikely to occur (perhaps it’ll be after the Norwegian Army invades or your father won’t go to a meeting because Hamlet will have killed him at that point) a faint blue X will appear on the timeline, indicating to the player that if you really need this event to happen, you’ll have to try again after a reset.
In addition to having a timeline, your character also has a map that you can click on at any point and see where all the characters are. If you haven’t overheard someone talking about an event that’s about to transpire you might be able to find out it’s happening by seeing a collection of characters meeting at a location and go there and listen in. The map allows you to go to virtually every space in the game, however, occasionally you will need to convince people to let you into spaces, for instance you are not allowed to leave the castle walls and go into town until you catch the guards gambling at night and basically blackmail them into letting you come and go as you please. You cannot enter the Queen’s chambers until you do a favor for one of her ladies and they tell you where the key is hidden. Seven-hundred words later, it’s obvious that the mechanics of this game are complex. However, the even more complex part of the game might be your character’s objective. One helpful way to unpack the objective of Elsinore might be through some of the various lenses that Janet Murray writes about in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
Elsinore as a Contest Story
When you are first murdered and the game resets, the natural conclusion is that you are now playing a contest game. Your obvious adversary is the spy who killed you, so now, to save yourself from dying and presumably win the game you need to eliminate the spy. However, once you find and eliminate the spy the game doesn’t stop. You are able to arrest the spy and live to the next day but time keeps looping. Moreover, Peter Quince, who is the playmaster who Hamlet invites to put on a replica play of his uncle killing his father in order to get him to confess, moves from a background character to the foreground. After your first reset it’s revealed that he is also moving outside the flow of time, and he often discusses tragedy and how to craft a tragic story with Ophelia. After you finish the time loop where you get the spy arrested and evade your own death, Quince appears and says he’s bored of that plot line and eliminates it, meaning that the spy is no longer trying to kill you. He then gives you a new objective, to find the Book of Fates, and in order to do this you must befriend your old murderer, flipping the idea of the contest story on its head.
You could also view the game as a contest story in light of the original play. Hamlet and his allies being the good guys versus murderous King Claudius, and you as Ophelia can try to warn everyone in the castle of Claudius’ misdeed or even get him killed. However, this isn’t your only option. Murray writes, “We need to find ways of drawing a player so deeply into the situated point of view of a character that a change of position will raise important moral questions” (Murray, 147). Indeed, you have the agency to switch sides, to seduce King Claudius and even marry him and become the Queen of Denmark, and the more you conversate with him and listen in on him you realize that his brother he murdered was not innocent or even benevolent, thus further complicating the idea of a bad opponent and a righteous hero in a contest. Every character is dynamic and has both moral and immoral qualities.
Elsinore as a Kaleidoscope Narrative
When explaining the concept of kaleidoscope narratives Murray compares them to an interactive dinner theater, one where you are sat at the table of the actors and are able to hear their different stories. In many ways, this is exactly what Elsinore is: a play made to be interactive. The key difference is that in a dinner theater the actors are still ultimately going to proceed with the same ending regardless of your interaction and in Elsinore you have the ability to change what will transpire.
Murray also writes about how kaleidoscope narratives require the viewpoints of multiple people to understand it fully. She writes, “In order to find the whole story, they have to take the trip again, making different choices” (Murray, 159). Obviously the time-looping features on Elsinore not only make this possible but requires it, in order to get some information you might need to be in a scenario where someone dies but is alive in the next time loop.The reset is imperative to finding out others motivations and discovering the full narrative.
Elsinore as a Rhizome
Murray also invokes Gilles Deleuze’s rhizome model of thought where all the points are connected. Elsinore undoubtable fits into this category, mainly because there is no end. There is a way to get a credit roll, if you are able to find the book of fates you can choose one you lock into it and stop the time looping, but the game doesn’t restart after that. If you want to keep playing you don’t restart Elsinore but rather return to it, and while you are returning Hamlet’s father’s ghost keeps warning you not to come back and not to reopen the book. You could, however, play out each of the 11 possible fates, or try different secret endings like burning the book or killing Peter Quince, but if you wanted you could just keep living in time-looping Elsinore Castle for eternity.
Murray writes that, “As we navigate its tangled, anxiety-laden paths, enclosed within its shape-fitting borders, we are both the exasperated parent longing for closure and separation and the enthralled child, lingering forever in an unfolding process that is deeply comforting because it can never end” (Murray, 134). Indeed, as a player it can be both frustrating that there is no tangible objective in sight, no complete and satisfying narrative end, but there is also comfort in the rhizome. The game itself often nods to this, after it’s necessary for you to, for instance, let your father die in a time loop, Ophelia will often say to herself something to the effect that she’s sorry but it won’t matter for long and that she’ll see him in a couple days. The deaths lose a lot of their gravity that they have in Hamlet because you watch them happen over and over, but it always resets.
Elsinore as the Ultimate Tragedy Game
As I mentioned previously, there is no real ending to Elsinore but there are 11 different fates from the Fate Book that you can choose to play out. These fates all have one thing in common, they are tragic. Every fate is structured as a trade, for instance if you choose the path of marrying King Claudius the fate is called “Trade Innocence for Power”. Even if you opt out of the Fate Book endings, the secret endings still have tragic ends. In Murray’s imagining of the ultimate tragic video game she writes that by the end, “The reader would have both enacted and witnessed the decision and feel the sense of understanding, inevitability, and sorrow that we call catharsis” (Murray 177). Indeed, this is what every (non)ending of Elsinore provides, the agency of choosing your own fate and still experiencing a kind of tragedy.
Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet Horowitz Murray, The Free Press, 1997, pp. 126–182.
Signs of the Sojourner uses its deck-building structure as a jumping off point for creating a procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic, compassionate communication. Players can only succeed in conversations–and therefore receive the items they need to complete goals and the information to unlock new paths–by forming matches with characters. In order to form a match, players have to recognize the right-hand symbol of the other character and mirror it. In order to set up a subsequent match, the player must introduce a new symbol that corresponds to the kinds of symbols the character they are talking to is likely to have. There can only be a match when characters listen to each other and recognize their partner’s conversation style. And in order to do this, players need to intentionally build a deck suited to the characters they want to talk to.
Deck-building games originated with Dominion, a game in which players add cards to their decks and try to gather victory points. Dominion is a competitive multiplayer game. It spawned numerous other deck-building games, some competitive and some collaborative. Signs of the Sojourner is a more collaborative one. In most conversations, both participants want a positive result, but may be constrained by cards in such a way that they cannot reach it. Unlike many other deck-building games, including Dominion, Signs of the Sojourner limits how many cards can be kept in a deck. It also forces players to switch out a card at the end of each conversation, with the new card mimicking an attribute of the conversational style of the character to which the player just spoke. In game, this is described as gaining experience and forgetting old memories. Characters literally rub off on Rhea (the playable character), so that their conversational style and identity shift based on the people they meet. Conversations, whether positive or negative, are incorporated into Rhea’s personality in a way similar to how in a bildungsroman, “only by stringing together ‘experiences’ does one build a personality” (Moretti 48).
To maximize the number of successful conversations, players eventually need to choose certain conversational traits (symbols) for Rhea to specialize in. This is another procedural rhetoric: it’s impossible to connect to everyone, and it’s okay to prioritize certain people that you want to build relationships with. Characters in different regions of the map tend to have different styles of speaking. For example, characters further east tend to be more industrious and direct. This can disincentivize players from travelling to different regions in which the speaking styles may be radically different, and players might not have the right cards for successful conversations. Adopting a different conversation style may also make it harder to connect with characters back in Bartow, who tend to be empathetic and diplomatic. Many of us noted that our conversations with Elias, our childhood best friend, became more strained as we acquired more diverse cards that made matches with him more difficult. We also noticed that talking with him often forced us to take cards that were weaker than the ones we had acquired through traveling (although according to the Wiki, he is the only player who can provide Accommodate cards, one of the most useful). We felt like we were drifting away from him. On the other hand, characters like Nadine who also traveled tended to diversify their cards more, like us, over the course of the game. The cataclysm introduces a new set of symbols, the distressed ones. When Rhea acquires several of them, it can make it harder for them to talk to characters who don’t feel similarly distressed. It seemed odd to us that the orange “empathetic” symbol couldn’t match with distress. According to the game’s logic, only people who actually share distress can relate to each other.
The card effects mimic conversational styles in clever ways, furthering the impression that the game mechanics are a good imitation of conversations. It makes sense that “Clarify” would allow you to go back into an earlier part of a conversation, and that it usually has a positive effect, and that “Chatter” would allow you to place two cards. We liked using the “Chatter” card to quickly advance conversations, although it seemed a bit in tension with the procedural rhetoric of empathetic listening being necessary for a conversation’s success. Still, as the game’s Wiki notes, playing “Chatter” is not always advantageous, since “Chatter” chains cannot lead to accords and may use up matching cards, forcing the player to draw less useful cards. The Wiki also emphasizes the power of “Accommodation” cards, even claiming that “a run can be accomplished while succeeding at over 90% of all conversations by working towards a deck filled entirely with Accommodate cards” (although it does not provide evidence for this claim). This privileging of “Accomodation” fits with the procedural rhetoric that encourages empathetic listening.
Like in an archetypical bildungsroman, Rhea moves from a pre-modern world (Bartow) to a larger, more modernized surrounding world. As they travel, they encounter not only more urban settings, but technologies like railroads and humanoid robots. With these industrialized technologies come industrialized problems, like the Rilkers’ cruel treatment of the robots eventually leading to a strike in Tosende Canals. (The antagonistic Rilkers are mentioned several times in Signs of a Sojourner and were enemies of Rhea’s mother, but from the Wiki it does not seem like Rhea ever directly encounters them.) Different endings complete the process of Rhea’s identity formation in more or less satisfying ways. In one ending, Rhea fails to convince the caravan to continue coming to Bartow, leading to the town’s abandonment. This seems like it would be a “bad” ending: the player/Rhea did not complete their goal. However, this ending is not framed negatively. Rhea and Elias move to Aldhurst, where they run a more successful business. This arc seems fitting for a bildungsroman. It is a happy ending, in which Rhea has incorporated their trials into their development and found stability in their new life. In contrast, the supposed “good” ending, seems to be less satisfying. Bartow is stable, but there is still a restlessness to Rhea as other characters encourage them not to get stuck in the town. In a third ending, Rhea starts a revolution in Old Marae, cementing a new identity as a revolutionary.
One constraint that Signs of the Sojourner puts on its conversations is the Fatigue cards, which accumulate as Rhea takes longer trips between towns. These cards, which mismatch on both sides, are never useful to play and make it less likely to get more valuable cards. There is a maximum time constraint on Rhea’s trips (50 days), but these cards provide another constraint: accumulating too many forces the trip to end. These cards mean that trips need to be chosen thoughtfully and that exploring specific regions is easier than travelling across the map. They also have a procedural rhetoric: it is harder to communicate well when you are tired. Fatigue cards can make it even harder to connect with Elias after longer trips, further distancing Rhea and him. There are some ways to get rid of Fatigue cards, including interactions with Thunder. Still, we found them to be a frustrating and perhaps overbearing constraint on gameplay. Perhaps having less of them could have had a similar effect but allowed players to have more interactions before having to return to Bartow. Another suggestion that came up in class was to reduce the hand size as the journey progressed instead of diluting it with the fatigue cards. Our frustration with the fatigue cards raised a larger question of how to balance a game that uses its mechanics as heavily for storytelling as Signs of the Sojourner. Most of us agreed we were invested in the deck-building gameplay only in so far as it let us explore the larger narrative.
And explore does feel like the right verb–as Jenkins discusses, this is a story that’s told over space. Characters are tied to specific spaces, although they, like Rhea, may migrate as time passes. The depth to which we know certain characters may change depending on our route. I deviated from the caravan as early as my second trip, so I didn’t meet Lars, the farmer from Tosunde Canals, until he relocated to Aldhurst after the cataclysm. At that point, he didn’t want to talk to me (I didn’t have the right cards to match with him, but he was grumpy anyway). I didn’t understand his backstory or why he was so distrustful of other humans (if you meet him earlier, you learn this is because he lived among robots at Tosunde Canals and rarely interacted with humans). As Jenkins discusses, although Signs of the Sojourner progresses literally, much of what Rhea comes to learn is about the past, including about their mother. There’s a depth to the story world through its history. The game progression is also grounded in time. Each trip has 50 days and events happen at specific times. You can miss certain interactions if you miss characters on certain trips. And you can strengthen or weaken relationships depending on if you visit or skip. I missed Pachenco on my fourth trip and came back on my fifth to find the Marques blaming me for Tomas’ leaving (even though Tomas and I were on good terms).
Through its deck-building mechanics, Signs of the Sojourner persuades players of the power of conversation and that they should use it compassionately. While it may not be beneficial for every conversation to have a positive result (like when you catch Lil’Basilio trying to steal from you if you fail a conversation with him), the majority of the time the game processes encourage connection. Positive conversations are the only way to acquire objects and learn useful information. The game processes also suggest that identity formation comes from these kinds of connections and the people we choose to relate to. The game’s processes reveal how socialization develops identity.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. The MIT Press, 2007.
Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. The MIT Press, 2004, pp. 118-130.
Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. Verso, 1987.