Saving John is a hypertext game about traversing the memories of a dying(?) man. It’s not terribly long to read through, but the author recommends several encounters with the text for best effect. Review after the break.
If, six or seven years ago, you’d asked me what I thought about hypertext games and literature, I would have said something like this: because some of the best-regarded hypertext stories are for-pay, I’ve not tried them. But I have tried a number of freeware pieces that explore this space, and I have yet to play one that I found really compelling. They seem to have a strong trend towards being plotless explorations of memories, or otherwise designed to avoid the need for a strict temporal sequence. They rarely allow the player’s choices to significantly affect what happens. With neither plot nor strong player agency, they have to rely totally on the quality of their prose and their thematic coherence. And of the ones I’ve tried, very few are able to live up to those demands.
Since then, there’s been a lot of work that has gone beyond that description: different content, different structures, different styles.
But Saving John reminds me of some of my old issues with such pieces. In this work, we’re often shown that the protagonist has strong feelings about past events, but we don’t get enough context to understand those events ourselves (or at least I didn’t). It’s often unclear what’s going on, or in what temporal order things happened, or how the various characters to relate to one another. The structure of the piece circles back on itself again and again, so you can find yourself rereading the same passages multiple times in the same playthrough, unintentionally. It’s not only difficult to control what happens, it’s difficult even to predict whether clicking a given link is going to take you to a section of text you’ve seen before. It’s a textual maze.
After I went through this piece four or five times, I did eventually form a hypothesis about what was supposed to have happened. This could be wrong, but here is what I thought happened:
Abandoned by his father and then frequently abused by his grandfather (though it’s not quite clear whether this takes the forms of beatings or sexual molestation or something else), the young John splintered his personality into several pieces: the angry Adam, associated with the color red; the misfit uncool kid Sam, associated with orange; and yellow, which possibly has something to do with Cherie (his wife or girlfriend, later?) or possibly some other personality. (I didn’t quite sort out this part.) John also has an imaginary guardian/friend named Larry, whom he associates with the scent of vanilla, and an alternative girlfriend who may be another figment of John’s self.
Cherie has for years apparently endured his multiple personality issues, but they’ve separated and John has… tried to commit suicide? Tried to break up with her? Had a “fight” with his Adam side and gotten hurt? Anyway, he’s in a bad way. Possibly he’s on the verge of drowning, or possibly that’s just a metaphor for his mental illness.
He then may choose to hold on to the hand that reaches out to him. If this is Cherie’s hand, then he has some hope. If he’s still so delusional that he associates the hand with one of his alternate selves, however, it can go worse.
Assuming I even understand the story correctly, I came away with the impression that the multiple-identity issues were a somewhat exoticized presentation of a fairly controversial illness. Multiple personality disorder is one of the most glamorized and misrepresented forms of mental illness in literature, and that makes me a little uncomfortable when I run into it.