HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.
Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.
At the same time, I felt as though I would be able to make more sense of the ending I did receive if I went and found out whether certain other possibilities were available. I mentioned this to the author, who went away and came back a few days later with a big chart.
This chart makes it clear that there are consequences for some of the early choices that aren’t necessarily signaled as being game-changers, that don’t have any obvious causal implications. Your character’s attitude towards the hunt changes what happens later. (Another player I talked to about this also mentioned being surprised by how early the game branches, and when.)
I suppose you could argue that what she said about her attitude affected how the characters perceived her and therefore how they acted later in the story; but nonetheless I felt that the universe surrounding the protagonist is more than usually malleable.
Iron Rabbit Encounter, Caeth (play online). Iron Rabbit Encounter tells a story in which most of the essential action takes place in dreamspace. The player trips over a strange iron rabbit sculpture, takes it home, and dreams about it several times. Relatively little happens in the real world, but the events of the dream world can be transforming.
This is a format of which I’m often pretty skeptical. Writing a character’s dreams often allows the author to be vague and fake-profound, to handwave the details of the character’s life, to set up colorful situations with no real-world stakes. The dream sequences that I do like are typically ones set deep into a story about a well-established character, ideally one who has already developed a certain symbolic vocabulary.
Iron Rabbit Encounter does not exactly escape these issues, but I nonetheless found some of the dream contents striking, particularly a sequence in which you visit a sinister pet shop. At one point, I was invited either to kill a creature, or to free it — but freeing it seemed to involve a metaphysical commitment whose meaning was not laid out explicitly ahead of time. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, but I did waver. In the land of dreams and fairy-tales, it’s a bad idea to make an agreement with a supernatural being when the terms haven’t been fully laid out.
It’s a variation I find more effective than the usual choice between being evil and being virtuously self-sacrificial. I don’t know what I’m sacrificing. I don’t know whether it will affect only me, or others as well. Stopping to think about forces me to engage more at the story level, rather than simply labeling the two options as “teacher’s pet choice” and “subversive choice”. (There’s a similar ambiguous-effects choice in Cinders, if you ask help from a certain Fairy, and I hesitated in that context as well.)
And here again we run into plot branching that isn’t accounted for purely in terms of physical-world causality. In Iron Rabbit Encounter, which dream you have depends on what you’ve told the game at the beginning about your life: are you content, bored, frightened? The dreams vary radically according to that choice. As in Hunting Unicorn, the protagonist’s psychological state is as real as or more real than anything else in the game. And as in HUNTING UNICORN, I didn’t realize where the branch points were, or even that they existed, on my first trip through the game. When I first played I assumed it was fairly linear, and it was only when replaying to review that I recognized some of the points of branching.
In both stories, the mystical creature of the title is a force for revelation and change in the protagonist’s rather bleak and static life. And in both, causality works according to mystical logic: things that seem like reflective choices have a determining effect on the outcome. I certainly don’t consider that a problem, but I do find that I appreciate both pieces better when I’m aware of how and why they branch.