IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Harry Giles on Cape

Cover of capeThis post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Harry Giles, creator of (among other things) Raik and the spoken word performance Drone, has written here about Bruno Dias’ Cape.

Cape is a superhero origin story about superhero origin stories: it knows its genre, and works to lay bare and question the assumptions behind it. The superhero is a nobody, but rather than an everyman nobody they are a minority nobody: despite free-choice character selection cycles, they’re always an immigrant and always poor. There is no great inciting incident, no murdered parents, no shipwreck, no kindly aunt: player meets powers because of a break-in brought on by economic necessity. They’re not even particularly good at their new role: few crimes are thwarted, they are beaten up and rescued as often if not more often than they do the rescuing, and by the end of the game their actions don’t appear to have made a dent in the system.

And yet, despite these anti-genre turns, the game is still deeply concerned with playing out the conventions of genre. There are magical powers to get used to. There is an evil mastermind and henchmen to confront, a savvy assistant to meet, a teaser for the next episode. Dias has taken these plot signposts and given them an unusual level of reality and an unusual level of critique.

This commitment to making the situation feel real has some good narrative payoffs. There are drones, which are now a signifier that Marvel TV shows use to signal that they’re contemporary, but these ones actually operate like drone copters do now. When the savvy assistant is asked to hack them, they say “What the hell does that even mean?” (a punchline I didn’t know I was waiting for until I heard it), and instead offers the actually existing and far cooler technology of CV Dazzle. The world makes sociological and technological sense and is satisfying to learn about. The writing is, for the most part, well-crafted: though it never particularly excited me artistically, it carried me through with pace and panache. Having a realistic world, however, conflicts dramatically with player agency. If you can’t change that much about the world, what motivation do you have to act in it?

That question is answered, in part, mechanically. Rather than player choices making dramatic plot effects, their result is internal to the reader: it is roleplaying as characterisation rather than as plot choice. You can choose to be violent or pacifist, but this isn’t tracked or rewarded in a point system, and the only narrative change I spotted was a single epilogue line referencing the general population’s attitude towards you. More often, you are choosing which question matters most to you to ask, or what your motivation is for a given action.

This is partly determined by the choice of platform. Undum is well-engineered for novelistic, story-focussed efforts: the full text is always available on scrolling up, meaning that narrative direction is always forward, with no allowance for backtracking or spatial exploration. It’s a story to unroll, with choices about how you want to be in it, rather than a world to explore and conquer. This mechanical restriction did cause a few clunky moments when it’s forced to do spatial exploration or replicate a parser-style “examine” command, leading to disjointed paragraphs in lieu of a smooth flow of text: there’s little point inserting spatial exploration if it’s not the strength of the system or the story. It would be better to focus less on this form of interaction and more on where the game excels: choices that explore characterisation and motivation.

Narratively, there’s a similar problem of trying to do contradictory things in a single work: it’s very hard to both do and un-do a genre piece satisfyingly. In a genre built on tremendous heroes doing world-changing things, if you take away the ability to truly be great or affect the world, what stories are left to tell? What’s the point of building a story towards a dénouement with a supervillain if that showdown is revealed not to have made much of a difference? What’s the point of having a superhero origin story if the superhero can’t be heroic? There are answers to these questions, and interesting ones, but they may require another kind of story.

The same problem plays out at a political level. Dias has written oppression and economic injustice into his world, but he also has shadowy villains with convoluted evil schemes. These two things struggle to co-exist in the same narrative universe: is it diverse and distributed economic processes which cause gentrification, or is it one nasty guy buying up all the cheap property? Is police corruption inherent to the functioning of a class society, or is one billionaire paying them all off? In the epilogue, the problem of agent-versus-system is resolved by suggesting that new villains slot into the systemic roles of the old, but at the same time it’s also implied that there’s a super-conspiracy that’s bigger and more important than the old conspiracy. Is the hero going to endlessly penetrate and defeat new hierarchies of opponents, always going higher in an attempt to bring down the system, or will the story go in a new direction? At present Cape only presents the contradictions of genre without doing the truly interesting work of working through them – but there’s the world, the writing and the ideas here for a compelling sequel.

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