In You’ve Got a Stew Going, he steers the player into a bunch of weird, rat-protagonist behavior, and at one point breaks the fourth wall to tell the player directly that something is going to be a dead end. In Taco Fiction, he gives the player so explicit a set of instructions about how to carry off an “easy” armed robbery that we know something’s got to go wrong, but we trundle along into it anyway. In Nautilisia, he breaks the fourth wall hard, helpfully explaining all the symbolism as the player encounters it in a quick riff on surreal IF.
This willingness to drop immersion and plausibility in favor of something else — typically a punch line — makes Veeder’s games(*) feel less like stories or living worlds than like exceptionally high-quality knock knock jokes.
That sounds like a slam, but I say it with the deepest respect. There are lots of interactive stories that have non-interactive jokes written in, but Veeder’s funniest bits require the player to help make the comedy happen. This is much harder to achieve and much funnier when it works. Paul O’Brian has just recently written about a similar effect in Dinner Bell, and long ago Adam Cadre wrote about participatory comedy in Fine-Tuned, but it’s not a common effect. The key to all this is that Veeder is able to conduct the player’s behavior accurately enough to get us right where he wants us, when he wants us there: pacing is one of the hardest things to get right in interactive narrative and one of the most necessary to humor.
There’s more to it even than that, though. There’s some participatory comedy in IF that works with the grain of role-playing. A lot of the jokes in Lost Pig are rewards for thinking like Grunk and giving a Grunk-appropriate order like BURN PANTS or BURP. Tale of the Kissing Bandit rewards the player for thinking of commands like TWIRL MUSTACHE. Those are bits that reward the player for playing along with the narrative.
A lot of Veeder’s pieces, by contrast, make the following pitch to the player: Look, you and I both know that what the game is asking you to to do is disgusting (eating things only a rat would eat), pointless (exploring this surreal dreamscape filled with unsubtle metaphors), or just flatly a terrible idea (robbing a restaurant that probably doesn’t have a large cash stock anyway, armed only with a nonfunctional gun), but aren’t you curious what will happen if you do? Come on. I just need one volunteer from the audience.
It’s the joke that plays out because you’re tempted into doing something against your better judgment, or at least against your sense of what is going to work out well for the PC. I trust Veeder isn’t like this in real life, because people who in real life constantly test to see whether they can make you do things you don’t want to do aren’t comedians, they’re jerks. But this strategy works pretty well, and is often very funny, within the safe space afforded by a game. It doesn’t even necessarily feel that antagonistic. Instead it feels as though the player and the author are communicating on some plane distinct from the lower plane where that poor sap the player character hangs out.
The Statue Got Me High demonstrates the same aptitude for player direction, misdirection, and subversion, though this time with less fourth-wall breaking and more reliance on the player’s IF-based expectations. Veeder gets the player to scurry around trying to solve puzzles that seem to matter, then changing up the situation every time one gets close, in a tight, ingenious sequence that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
I’d like to get spoilery about this and narrate my own play-through experience, but I am going to do so after the jump, for the sake of those who might not have played yet.
The player character is the butler to a deeply unpleasant man and his also unpleasant house guests. The guests promptly start telling him where they would like to sit at the dinner table, with logic-puzzle-esque instructions about how this person can only sit on the north side of the table and that person is left-handed. We’ve been given a stack of place cards, and there’s an implication we’re going to have to lay them out. Sort of. If we actually try to interact with the table as though we were going to solve this puzzle — e.g. by trying to put place cards in specific spots — we rapidly find that this doesn’t seem to be supported with the necessary vocabulary or parsing ability. The parser shows no sign of comprehending PUT GARRY PLACE CARD IN LEFT NORTH SPOT or anything along the same lines, for which I suppose we ought to be grateful, because it sounds like an awfully annoying experience.
Nonetheless, the game is signaling at us that place-card-logic-puzzle is what we’re supposed to be doing right now. So we’re dutifully taking notes and trying to solve the layout in our head, but right when we’ve interviewed all the guests and are about to figure out what we should do with the place cards, the statue invited to dinner shows up. Our boss decides he doesn’t care about the place settings and rips up the cards (jerk!), instead sending us to the basement to get some wine from a cellar locked with a ludicrous combination lock.
Then that puzzle also turns out to be kind of a non-issue, but we waste a bunch of time opening a crate with a crowbar, which exists only to be a thing we have to do annoyingly slowly while people upstairs make crunching noises like they’re being pulverized by a stone object. However, in the end we prevail over all four nails in the crate lid, so we take the bottle we were sent to get and we rush back upstairs and everything is on fire; and then the murderous statue tells us to sit on a chair, and even though the chair is also probably on fire and the statue is, as mentioned, murderous, we do sit, just because an NPC is telling us in boldface to do so.
This is fatal.
In replay, it becomes clear we didn’t have to do that. We could have just walked out the door and not burned to a crisp. But this is a 9:05-style realization, where the comedy and the sucker-punch comes from the discovery both that there was a winning outcome and that we didn’t take it because we were busy doing what we were told, even when we were being told to do something dangerous by someone who obviously did not have our best interests at heart.
And then we realize that we could, in fact, have gone to the cellar and gotten the wine earlier in the game (either by brute force or because we’ve now learned the combination), so we do that, and there’s a third ending available for thinking outside the box that way, which avoids almost all of the screaming and setting on fire, but is declared Non-Canonical.
What I like about this thematically is that the PC doesn’t seem to be a bad guy in himself, but he’s spent much of his life (as far as we can tell) blindly doing what he’s told by someone who is a bad guy. And so the PC’s ultimate destruction depends on whether at the last moment he goes along uncritically with what he’s told to do, or whether he decides to walk out the door instead. All he has to do to save himself is to stop committing the one sin he’s been committing all along.
This is not new territory for games — “ignore your instructions unless you want to die in a fire” is also the plot of Portal, and a number of other games have explored how controlling a video game can be and how much it makes the player do its bidding, much more explicitly than Veeder does here.
The Statue Got Me High isn’t really trying to be that profound. It is, however, a well-constructed bit of black humor designed around IF tropes and expectations, featuring a morbidly awful batch of NPCs vaguely reminiscent of (but more extreme than) the ghastly socialites in Sting of the Wasp. If there were a XYZZY Award for Best Use of Making the Player Dance Like a Puppet, The Statue Got Me High would be a shoo-in for 2012.
(* I left out Wrenlaw from this analysis because it felt like a very different sort of game from the others. It does feel like it’s meant to be a world taken seriously and a protagonist you empathize with — but I also found it less directed as an experience than anything else I’ve played of Veeder’s, and I didn’t really get what was going on until I read the source, having bumbled about a bunch as a player. It may be that I just didn’t get the point.)