Caroline is a short interactive story about a man who has a romantic relationship with a woman from a cult.
First impressions: hey, decent cover typography. The art itself is fairly vague, but a lot of amateur cover art puts the words in the wrong font or doesn’t give them nearly enough margin space or layers them over a background with too little contrast. This avoids those pitfalls, which is good. The blurb on the other hand is fairly generic. I’m expecting something stream-of-consciousness about a relationship.
Caroline offers us an unusual interface, one that I suspect will get mention again in the ongoing choice-vs-parser discussion. It is a completely choice-based game — there are a series of story nodes, there’s no discernible underlying world model, and at each point usually there are one or two possible ways of moving forward. However, in order to select a choice, you must type in precisely the prompt provided. Any errors will lead to your input simply being ignored, and even typing a space at the beginning counts as an error. (I don’t know why I made this mistake, but I did, several times over the course of play.) Moreover, several of the phrases are on the longish side, and there was one point where I couldn’t seem to get the game to accept what I typed even with multiple exacting attempts. Overall, the effect is an input mechanism that doesn’t have the parser’s discoverability problems, but is also rather less robust and forgiving than the average parser.
The experience of playing with that is unquestionably a lot different from the experience of playing the same game with clickable links. Typing takes longer, which changes the pace; having to type out exactly what the game says to type produces both a certain level of commitment and a sense of subservience to the game’s demands. This was interesting. I suspect we’ll be talking about it again; at the very least it fills in another point in the UI/world model chart, up there with The/A Colder Light and An Earth Turning Slowly.
As for the story, that didn’t work quite so well for me, both because I found the characterization unbelievable and because the plot went in uncomfortable directions. But let’s spoiler-space this:
It concerns a romantic relationship with a woman whose motivations and personality I never quite understood. In the first scene she seems flaky, rapidly changing her mind about the details of our date, but she later proves fanatically determined about various things she wants me to do. It’s implied she has a solid editorial publishing job, but her poetry is not great (and I think that’s intentional on the game’s part, since our response options imply disliking the poetry). I think possibly I was supposed to be attracted to her, or at least accept that the protagonist was attracted to her, but her behavior — selfish, inconsistent, manipulative, opaque — was so much the opposite of what I find desirable in a romantic partner that I was pretty turned off. I did not want the protagonist to kiss her when I had the opportunity, and several times tried to get the protagonist away from her, though not successfully. More about that later.
Caroline drags the protagonist to meet with an odd, rather off-putting priestess, who then reveals that the protagonist and Caroline are intended to conceive the next Messiah — and to conceive Him pretty much immediately. In my own playthrough, I somewhat reluctantly had the character go along with this, but I gather that at a certain point you can try to withhold consent and this leads to the NPC raping the protagonist. Even prior to the sex, there are a lot of moments where the player is given the opportunity to oppose or disagree with something that Caroline is doing — for instance, I tried to leave the church before receiving Creepy Cult Blessing, but was unable to do so, and at many other points Caroline overrules my wishes and has the game take me in her chosen direction anyway. While I certainly wouldn’t say that locking someone in a church is the same thing as raping them, I would say that forcing them non-consensually into a religious ritual is a wildly inappropriate transgression of their boundaries.
There are numerous games that mess with player agency, and sometimes that can be used to very powerful effect. Here, though, I felt like the messing with player agency was in a very strange tension with the issue of denied protagonist consent. And that effect was actually strengthened by the fact that I was forced to actually type in all the options rather than just clicking on them: making my choices was more work, so I felt more connection with them and resented it more when a laboriously typed phrase turned out not to get me what I’d asked for.
The result of all this was that I felt really creeped out throughout the game, starting when Caroline refused to let me make any decisions about whether we should, say, stay in this restaurant where we just ordered a huge meal. It’s rather less clear from the narration whether the protagonist is creeped out or not, but the whole thing seemed to me so self-evidently the story of a manipulative, uncomfortable relationship that I thought the story would end with a confrontation or a revelation of Caroline’s true unpleasantness. It felt as though maybe the typing was a deliberate attempt to heighten that effect.
But no: in the ending I reached, Caroline is having sex with me and at the moment of climax she manifests angel wings, and then the game ends on a fade-to-white.
So if we take that seriously, the idea is… that this is all indeed God’s Plan? That Caroline is an angel, or manifests aspects of divinity at the moment of our sublime obedience? And yet this also doesn’t seem to be presented as a God Is A Real Jerk story, either.
Another alternative is that the author did not perceive the story to be creepy or problematic at all, and that the times when Caroline overrides the protagonist’s will, it’s because the author has a place he wants the story to go and Caroline’s insistence is the in-game mechanism for accomplishing that. Certainly there are loads of games where an unreasonable or intractable NPC insists on something in order to block the player. All I can say to that is that the effect is different here — at least, it is for me — precisely because Caroline is omnipresent, the whole game is about our relationship to her and therefore it matters more if she’s given “forcible and demanding” as a character trait; and she’s forcing us into boundary-crossing problematic-consent areas, not just e.g. standing in front of a door we’d really like to pass through.
So. I’m not really sure what the story was trying to say, but I was reminded a little of the confusion I had around the message of Richard Smyth’s Offering, which also touches on divine will and consent.