Monday, October 10, 2016

Cactus Blue Motel (a second look, review)

Cactus Blue Motel is a Twine game written by Astrid Dalmady for the 2016 interactive fiction competition. When I first reviewed it, I had gotten stuck (it turned out) only about a third of the whole game. It's kind of embarrassing getting stuck in a Twine game, but even with that limited experience, I was already duly impressed with the sense place and the onscreen text effects. Having played since to the end (twice now) there is even more depth and meaning to this game than I imagined. If you have not read my earlier review, that might be a good introduction. With respect to the author, I add these more reflective and spoilery notes.

spoilers to follow.

Young people face harrowing choices. Where to work, who to date, what to study, and when to cut ones losses when choices already made seem to go bad. Sometimes it is tempting to turn ones back on social expectations and make the "unconventional choice". But doing that involves a risk that can go either way. Sometimes it's tempting just to drop out. For a young person (at least this was my experience) the anxiety of those choices can be overwhelming.

Cactus Blue Motel explores these themes in a way I've never seen done quite so effectively. The three protagonists have to decide whether to change their vacation plans and stay at the Cactus Blue Motel a few nights longer, or remain true to their itenerary. Except the motel is just a metaphor for a number of more serious personal choices: whether to enter a relationship, for one character. Whether to leave a relationship, for another. Whether to abandon the vacation and accept an unexpected job offer for the third.

The game is filled with choices, some of which appear to have grave consequences. The undo feature is disabled (at least in the online version) which imbues those choices with a sense of finality. Further, there is a character introduced about midway who repeats the refrain "it's a trap." That idea that our choices can trap us is especially frightening to young people (again, my experience) because the young have so much life ahead of them. In reality, all but our worst decisions can be undone.

The first time I played all the way to the end, I decided the motel WAS a trap. I managed to escape with my friends in the middle of the night, which struck me as sort of youthfully dramatic. The trade-off (in that version of the ending) is that Lex never got the summer job which could have helped pay for school, and the PC never really "discovered herself" as she might have if she had stayed. But the game passes no judgement on whether those were good or bad choices.

I played again. There are at least two significantly different endings. I suspect more. But it turned out that many of the choice points I had perceived earlier as stressful and pivotal weren't really all that important. This feature is true to life also, and reflects what I might call the Robert Frost principle of choice and memory.

(Robert Frost)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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