Sunday, October 25, 2015

In the Friend Zone (review)

"in the friend zone" (lower case) is a Twine game by Brendan Vance entered in the 2015 Interactive Fiction competition.

The writing, dream sequences and game design all have a strikingly surreal quality to them.  For me, this worked reasonably well as a surreal horror story.  I was less satisfied, however, by the depth of insights this tried to provide regarding obsessive love and failed relationships.

More after the spoiler.

The story presents a series of not too subtle metaphors for the angst felt by someone who is single and insecure:  watching rival "nice guys" dismember one another over the affections of some girl, being studied by a giant eyeball beneath the dance floor, being chewed up and shit out by a soul-less monster.

There are hints of misogyny from the NPCs. One of them shouts "I'll be the first to f**k her".  Another exits saying "Tell her she's a c**t".  I hoped that this was all meant to illustrate, through irony, that many people in this penal colony for nice guys, are not actually very nice.  Real nice guys don't talk like that.  Real nice guys pick themselves up with confidence after a failed relationship and just move on.  Healthy heterosexual women are attracted to real nice guys, but not to these self-deluded pretenders and insecure jerks.  At least I hope that's what this story is saying, and that I'm not just imposing my own values on a contrary narrative.

I played through to the end. It's all quite metaphorical, but my sense of the ending message is this: obsessive love is an accumulation of questions that can never be answered.  The object of the obsession isn't a real person, but an idealization of that person.  The idealized person is largely a reflection of oneself.

The player can choose to identify the object of their romantic obsession with either male, female or neutral pronouns.  However I got the sense that this is primarily about the experiences of a heterosexual male.  Emily Short has observed a similar phenomenon in her review of the game "Emily is Away".  I understand the desire to let players role-play anyone, whether male or female, trans or cis, straight or gay.  But if the story is really about a particular relationship, and has not been programmed to believably model other combinations of gender and identity, then I'd really rather just play as the character the author had in mind.  I thoroughly enjoyed the games "Plundered Hearts" (about a female protagonist) and "Gun Mute" (about a gay protagonist), though neither game would have worked if I (the straight male player) had authority to arbitrarily reassign gender pronouns throughout the text.

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