Cinders (Moacube)

only it was really too inconvenient, you see,
not least when it shattered on the staircase
I was running up to catch the last train…
Apologies for Breaking the Glass Slipper, Isabel Yap

When I’m drawn to adapt a traditional story to interactive fiction, it’s often because there’s something about the original that bothers me so deeply that I feel I need to address it. Part of the reason I rework fairy tales is that I have such a love-hate relationship with them: I was raised on them, read them avidly as a child, but consider them to have been terrible guidance in many many ways. Especially, especially, the Cinderella-style model of passive virtue for women that said, Don’t complain if people aren’t giving you your fair share. If people ask too much of you, comply anyway. Put yourself last in all circumstances. Endure anything that comes your way. Never speak up for yourself. In the end, your patience may be acknowledged and rewarded by someone else, but not, of course, at your own instigation.

This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated. Other people cannot be expected always to guess accurately what’s a reasonable thing to ask of you and what’s an unfair imposition. When they ask something that’s an imposition, a lot of the time they’re relying on you to say no if no is the appropriate answer. If you don’t ever push back, you cast other people as the villains in your story without their necessarily ever intending to have that role. If you never say no, you allow your time to be spent frivolously on things that might not even matter all that much to the asker, instead of on things that might make a big difference elsewhere.

I’m still fighting to reprogram myself. I think maybe other women sometimes are too. Cinderella, I notice, gets retold a lot from the perspective of women who are trying to make the lead character a little less passive, a little less obedient. Rosamund Hodge’s novella Gilded Ashes explains Cinderella’s cooperation through a novel twist: the ghost of Cinderella’s mother still haunts the area, and reacts with such terrible vengeance towards anyone it perceives making Cinderella unhappy that the girl has to feign a good mood all the time, or face being responsible for the violence that will result.

Then there’s Cinders.

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 6.21.50 PM

Cinders is a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella that takes a shot at this same issue. It’s been out for a few years, but recently a friend gave me a Steam key for it, so I only played a month or so ago. It has a lot to commend it: the art is very attractive while not belonging to the usual anime categories; the story offers a high number of branches and subbranches; and the whole thrust of both story and mechanics is to interrogate the “be quiet, put up with being bossed around, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a man” message of the original fairy tale.

This Cinderella has the opportunity to be passively obedient (“good”), assertively selfish (“bad”), or “smart” (here’s a spoilery breakdown of how stats are distributed over the course of the game). Being smart is usually a third-way path that acknowledges nuance and complexity in interpersonal matters while rejecting fantasies and delusions about magic. The conventionally “best” outcome, where Cinders marries the prince and then presides over a happy kingdom, requires a balanced behavioral profile. And whatever happens, the Cinders in this story doesn’t get any outcome without working for it.

I think there’s still further to dig into the Cinderella problem — the difficult thing in my experience is not so much about whether one should sometimes stand up for oneself, but about when, and how, and how to balance other people’s needs with yours when you’re out of practice making that calculation, and how to deal with the emotional fallout of standing up for yourself when you’re still counting your own “virtue” in terms of the number of other people’s tasks you did today.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the spin Cinders put on this old problem, and the fact that some of the happy endings didn’t wind up joining me with the prince at all, but let me have other lovers, or solitude, or even something approximating a career.

8 thoughts on “Cinders (Moacube)”

  1. I found myself getting frustrated with Cinders often for one of two reasons: either that there simply wasn’t a choice I would want to make, or that the reactions to my choices were not as I was attempting and expecting. The latter is interesting because although sometimes it seemed to be a purely mechanical matter of certain parts of text being kept across choices regardless of appropriateness, other times — many times — it seemed to be arguably a depiction of the reality that your interpersonal/pragmatic aims are Not Always Successful, as opposed to the game-y expectation of “press X to get Y”. Your assent may not mollify, your kindness may not soften hearts.

    I don’t know I’d call that “fun” exactly to relive-ish social failure, but it was an experience that I am [non-negative, non-neutral emotion] to have had. Certainly I’m not a fan of YOU MUST DO SRSBZNS LITRAHTCHAH attitudes either, but also “fun” isn’t the be-all and end-all of desirable experiences.

  2. This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated.

    Relevantly, this theme is made explicit in Mallory Ortberg’s Beauty and the Beast retelling. (If you haven’t already read Mallory’s “Children’s Stories Made Horrific” archive, you should check it out. And then maybe we’ll be one step closer to the best of all possible worlds, which is the one in which she and you collaborate on some IF…)

  3. Agreed, although I did like the alt endings for Cinders I still felt there was a sense of railroading for the later half of the game. The search continues for my ideal game with interesting female main characters…

  4. Oh so yes. Fairy tales – like so many other stories – are SO messed up, and it’s so very very hard to figure out the right path as a real-life woman (and mother), and as a writer of many female characters. My daughter wears mostly pink – and owns two toy tool sets. I gave up my name when I married – but when I role-play weddings with my daughter, we are both girls.

    I think we’re all feeling our way along unfamiliar paths as we try to make things better. The main thing is to realise the old paths are definitely not the right way, and to keep thinking about what stories we’re telling, and why. Which is exactly why I like blog entries like this.

    Felicity Banks

  5. @sojournerstrange: I haven’t played this game, but I got really intrigued by what you said about choices that don’t advance the story in the way the player expects, and how that may not be a bad thing.

    I recently wrote the script for a romance Visual Novel (female protagonist, male love interests). While I’m not fully satisfied with the end result, it did give me a *lot* to think about, both in terms of romance writing and game design. One of the things that were most on my mind was how I ended up feeling slightly iffy about the gamification of affection: buy one love interest the present he wants, get +1 relationship point. I really had to think long and hard about how not to make the love interests feel like slot machines who provide affection if you feed them enough tokens. Some potential solutions I thought about were choices that seem like they will give you relationship points, but don’t (or, alternately, choices that seem like they might be detrimental, but don’t, because any negative effect the choice would have would be such a small blip in an otherwise good relationship).

    What can I say? It’s still an immensely complex topic, and I’d be lying if I said that I came up with any all-encompassing solution.

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