There’s a review of Bronze on IFDB that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
After hearing so much about Bronze, I was expecting a very satisfying and pleasurable experience. This was not the case for me… I came away feeling like the entire experience was rather hollow and somewhat forced… Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful love story, but in this version of the tale, I felt that the protagonist’s relationship with the Beast lacked very much warmth or deep love.
This is a challenging review for me. Obviously, I’m sorry the reviewer didn’t have a good time. It’s possible that I could or should have done something to frame the presentation of the game to make clear that it was not going to be a traditional fairy tale happy-ending romance. (The closest thing to that I’ve ever written is Pytho’s Mask, which, not coincidentally, has some pretty shallow characters and a heavily gender-bound treatment of love; even so some subversive elements snuck in before the end.) Perhaps I seemed to offer something the game was never going to deliver — and, for what it’s worth, I do think that players have the right to want specific things from their games. Indeed, if the player doesn’t want something, she’s not likely to play for long.
However. The unromantic aspect of the game is not a mistake. On the contrary, it is the summation of the effort and thought that went into its creation.
I’ve always liked the Beauty and the Beast story; as a kid I read and reread Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. The independent, book-obsessed heroine appealed to me. I liked the idea that it was an ugly duckling story for her as much as for the Beast; McKinley’s Beauty is ironically named and doesn’t think of herself as conventionally attractive, finds fancy dresses uncomfortable, and would prefer to be with her horse or curled up in a library.
But when I set out to write a Beauty and the Beast story, I found I couldn’t write it the same way. When I stripped away the enchantments and the conventional stapled-on moral about Hidden Beauty and thought about these characters as people, the story changed on me. What kind of man would trap a woman, threaten her family, and harass her incessantly to marry him (and, in some versions of the story, subject her to rages and abusive outbursts)? What kind of woman would honor a promise to stay with such a man, let alone fall in love with him? What kind of father would let his daughter take his place in such a situation? Even if the Beast eventually agrees to let Beauty revisit her family, the circumstances suggested that everyone involved must be deeply broken.
So that’s what I wrote. The heroine comes from a family that doesn’t respect or value her. She is naive. She has no basis of comparison for the Beast. She pities him and in her loneliness she twists that into a kind of love, but in the end she has to confront the reality, which is that the Beast is a tyrant and a serial rapist, fundamentally warped by his ability to compel everyone around him to do his will. The privileged assumptions underlying that haven’t gone away even though he has become sufficiently remorseful to try to make things right via suicide. And he remains in many ways more psychologically attached to his last victim than he is to the current player character.
So no, these people aren’t in love — not in a happy-ending way, anyhow. They’re drawn together more by their flaws than by their strengths. Their levels of experience, their power and maturity, are terribly mismatched. The most we can say is that the player character wants to be in love with the Beast. The story makes it hard for her. It’s up to the player whether the protagonist decides to double down on this and to act as though she is in love, after learning everything she learns.
It’s not really what I initially intended to write, but the process of creation changed my mind about what I wanted to say.
I generally think that’s a good thing when it happens. More than that, I’d say that for me a lot of the point of creative processes and storytelling in general is as a way of thinking about some issue. You do the work so you can find out what you think. Sometimes it ends in aporia. Floatpoint is about a question I never did answer to my complete satisfaction, which may explain why its endings fail to commit absolutely to any ideal outcome.
I’ve been thinking about all this stuff again recently for two reasons. One is that I recently replayed Bronze — I was testing its performance on iPad Frotz and wound up going through the whole thing again. (It’s always embarrassing when you realize you’ve forgotten how to solve your own puzzles.) The other is that I’m (re-)revising the end of my current WIP. Like Bronze, it was conceived originally as a puzzle game with a light and perky narrative arc. Like Bronze, it’s changed in the telling, to the point where now I’m listening to Leonard Cohen and writing take 7 or 8 of the denouement. It’s an obnoxiously emo process. I’m fighting the damn thing because the integrity of the story demands a clearer, a more assured resolution than I want to give it. It needs to finish on a note I’m having a hard time reaching, not as a matter of technique, but as a matter of personal assent.
It seems the three-body problem here is in fact a four-body problem: what the player wants, what the characters want, what the author wants, what the work itself demands. If I get this problem right, no one will notice it ever existed. But how likely is that?