Autumn’s Daughter is a choice-based Undum work about arranged marriage in Pakistan. It’s quite short, running perhaps five minutes to play through once and a little longer to explore fully.
The premise of Autumn’s Daughter is that the player controls a young Pakistani woman threatened with an undesirable arranged marriage to an abusive man many years older than herself. There are hints of other ways her life might go: her friend has an attractive brother who might be an alternative groom, and there is also the possibility of going to teacher training school and gaining a career instead. But many of the possible outcomes are extremely unpleasant.
The setting and premise of Autumn’s Daughter appeal to me a great deal. Not, I mean, that I am enthusiastic about women being treated this way. But I am interested in stories that explore settings I haven’t seen dozens of times before, that deal with real world problems, that teach me about something I might not otherwise have known.
To that end, I wished the story had been substantially longer. That would have allowed me to spend more time with the character, learning about her life, coming to sympathize with her. I would have been curious to play through more scenes of her daily life and her interactions with other members of the household. What does a Pakistani wedding look like? What would have happened if the protagonist tried to speak directly to her father about her situation? Could we have seen more about what motivates her parents, as well as what motivates her? I don’t want to excuse them for what they’re doing to her, but I suspect there are social pressures on them as well, and I would have liked to explore more of the system that produces these results, rather than simply casting her father and her husband-elect as pure villains.
More thoughts when I can talk about the endings.
My favorite endings here were the ones in which the protagonist either (a) marries the horrible older man but plans a long-game resistance, building up her library in silence and preparing to train her son to be a better man; or (b) runs away with the assistance of an organization designed to rescue women in her situation, and begins to pursue a different life. Running away with Hashim seemed like it was only semi-winning: I’m still at the mercy of a man, and while that man is more attractive and more sympathetic, it seems like it might not be a fantastic outcome.
Also — I’m not sure whether this was intended or not — because two of the three options for talking to Hashim end with him more or less abandoning me, my overall sense of his character after playing multiple playthroughs was that he’s actually not that nice a guy.
This might not be how the story is meant to be read: for instance, the character of Laila, whom we meet at Samira’s house, can turn out either to be the heroic operator of a sort of women’s rescue organization, or the predatory operator of a brothel, and these two incompatible outcomes depend on how we choose to regard her. So there’s not a consistent underlying truth about Laila in the story. I get it, I think — the idea is that when someone comes offering you a way out in this situation, you can’t be sure whether they’re reliable or just looking for a way to use you, too. But by making the underlying “truth” of the story variable, Autumn’s Daughter hovers in a curious way between the general and the specific. Is this a specific story about particular characters, or is it a general simulation of a general problem? Some of the characters appear to be consistent across playthroughs, but not all.
Because some of the situations were so extreme, I also found myself wishing that the story provided more context for some of the options. When the gunmen show up to kill you and Hashim as punishment for running, I assume that this is an honor killing, and a bit of internet research seems to confirm my suspicion, but the game itself doesn’t offer very much information. At another point, we’re told that running away with Hashim could bring bad consequences to the family members left behind — but what consequences would those be? Again, I can make some vague guesses, but I would have liked to learn in more detail.
There are several ways the game could have gone by way of providing this context. It could, again, just have been longer, with more detail and explanation. In a few places, the story does gloss an interaction with extra information — for instance, to explain the garment the protagonist is wearing, or to let us in on what it means that she addresses Hashim by his name. These are cultural clues I would have missed without the gloss, and I would have liked more of this.
Alternatively, it could have relied on external sources for some of the events. This would have broken the fiction a little bit, perhaps, but I found myself thinking about Merritt Kopas’s work, especially Positive Space (NSFW) and Conversations with My Mother, which use links out to factual resources to add context. I could imagine a version of Autumn’s Daughter that linked to news stories or provided marginalia to the main text.
I originally had this review scheduled for a couple of days later, but I moved it up so it could run alongside Impostor Syndrome. Without going into too much spoilery detail, I think the two pieces are worth comparing — in their aims, in their structure, and in the way they both operate through the perspective of a semi-characterized, semi-every-person victim.