Spring Thing 2011: The Promise

We continue with the reviews of games from Spring Thing 2011. Today’s is The Promise, by Sean Huxter.

Short summary: Simple fetch-quest mechanics and streamlined descriptions make for an easy-to-complete but not always very compelling fable about a child in a village under attack. The plot picks up in later stages of the game, but early portions can feel workmanlike. And I found the final message of the game suspect. Estimated time: 45-60 minutes.

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I wasn’t crazy about the gameplay here, which almost entirely involved crossing the map over and over in order to retrieve objects for demanding adults. There weren’t really any puzzles, per se; it was more an exercise in doing what I was told, which is a little bit ironic given the coming-of-age, learning-to-fend-for-yourself themes of the fiction. In theory my character was learning interesting skills like glass-blowing, and getting a glimpse of how everyone in his village depended on everyone else. But this isn’t really a discovery for the player. Even when the town comes under attack and the player has to head off the map and make some choices for himself, the experience is too heavily guided for my tastes.

The moral of the piece turns out to be that you should keep a promise even if a Viking with an ax is about to kill you for doing so — after all, your father’s failure to keep his promise to a certain forest spirit-creature is what plunged your entire village into eternal winter. (In spite of which, no one in town seems to have considered moving.) Fables and ancient stories are full of this sort of point. Punishments for being forsworn. Terrible divine vengeance if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. Bizarre reasons people are tricked into doing what they promised not to. Spirits doomed to stick around on Earth after death, trying to finish something left undone in life.

But in a universe where promises are frequently extracted and then ruthlessly enforced, I’m not sure the protagonist’s behavior is such a great example. I’d be more inclined to arrive at a different moral: Don’t make promises lightly. Maybe don’t make them at all.

Does that seem flippant? Let me unpack a bit.

The folkloric obsession with oaths and promises makes plenty of sense in context. In a society with weak government or none at all, people’s ability to make commitments to each other and then follow through on them is pretty much the sole basis of cooperation and alliance. In Greek mythology, the gods are often much more worried about oath-breaking than they are about mere rapes, thefts, and murders, because to take an oath was to invoke their interest as enforcers.

It’s in the context of that moral structure and that type of thinking that it makes sense to say, yes, if you promised never to come back to a certain place, you must never return there, even at the cost of your own life.

But, critically, in cultures that make a big deal of sacred oath-taking of that sort (at least the ones I’m aware of), there’s typically a clear distinction between big sworn Promises and day-to-day practical agreements. You don’t swear a big heavy by-the-waters-of-Styx, on-the-staff-of-Wotan oath that you’ll run to the market for fresh milk. That’s not what oaths are for.

The Promise deliberately mixes those two things together, by teaching the player a PROMISE mechanic that he has to apply to tasks at every level of gravity. In doing so, it strays out of the cultural context that would make sense of its ending.

Personally, I prefer a slightly less sweeping approach to morality of promises. Life is contingent. People are limited and have many claims on their loyalty. If you want to take your promises seriously, you’ll give them out thoughtfully and only on rare occasions.

6 thoughts on “Spring Thing 2011: The Promise”

  1. To me, the final message of this game doesn’t seem “suspect”, it seems “guilty as hell”. The author asks me to make a choice, and then abuses his powers over the fictional world to chastise me if I do not go along with his absolutist, Kantian world view? It felt like a sudden punch in the stomach.

    (And I won’t buy any argument along the lines that the author is not affirming any specific ethical stance, but is rather neutrally showing the effects of certain choices in his fictional worlds. He is not.)

    1. Yes, very much so; this is not a game that wants to be about moral questions, it’s a game that wants to deliver a moral, and then messes up the delivery.

      A big part of the problem — quite aside from the absolutism — is that the choice is a false one. If Wil chooses to sacrifice himself, he gets a deus ex machina and doesn’t have to sacrifice himself at all. This is a venerable trope in static fiction, but it’s far less effective in choice-driven narratives, where the person making the choice can metagame like a bastard.

  2. I tried not promising during the sub-ultimate scene, going so far as leaving without a word, but the game just hung until I returned to promise. This then places all the emphasis on the breaking (or not) of the promise, and none whatsoever on the making – you literally have no choice but to promise if you want to keep the ball rolling.

    It’s frustrating, too, because at that stage, it’s not at all clear what the elder needs the sap for; if the device was ready except for a few local ingredients, wouldn’t you want to have the ingredients on hand? As a result, I felt really manipulated by the game; it’s one thing to make a promise when you know it’ll save your people, and then pay the ultimate sacrifice – it’s another to make a promise to fetch a random thing for someone and then be expected to be willing to die for it.

    (I can’t help but think that ripping off a chunk of sap-laden inner bark might have produced the necessary stuff when heated, and wouldn’t have taken much longer than waiting for sap to drain into a bucket.)

    1. Interesting. I didn’t try refusing to give the promise at all, but that’s because it felt to me like the game wasn’t offering any other way forward.

      This reminds me of Fable III, where on your path towards the throne you have to dole out a number of promises to various people to get them to support you. Then, of course, once you are king/queen, it turns out to be harder to keep those promises than you expected. But there again, the player has no choice over which promises to make; they’re all plot-obligatory and in many cases arranged for you by your trusty companion. So the game undermined its own message because I felt that the promises along the way weren’t remotely my own choice.

      1. I didn’t expect it to work, particularly, but it seemed worth a try.

        I feel like there should have been more moral culpability on the part of the forest spirit, too; it’s not the way these things usually work, but casting a region into eternal winter because people don’t behave the way you want is not really a reasonable response. From my admittedly modern/post-modern stance, *who* you are promising to seems at least as important as the promise itself. If you’re in the Secret Service, and promise to protect the President of the US with your life, and he turns out to be a ravening werewolf intent on opening a gate to awaken Cthulu, surely that changes the dynamics of your oath a bit.

        Then again, I would be the rules lawyer in the meadow. “But I didn’t *come* here! I was chased here! I never promised not to be *chased* here!”) I fail at old-school oath-keeping.

      2. I feel like there should have been more moral culpability on the part of the forest spirit, too.

        Possibly; or, on the other hand, acknowledge that the forest spirit is not particularly driven by virtue, and make this a story about how, when dealing with the totally unfair superpowers that run the universe, you have to play by their rules even if those rules are unreasonable. (See also: Euripides.)

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