I had some thoughts about themes of responsibility, cruelty and past trauma in several of the games I’ve played in this IF Competition. It’s impossible to get too far into that without discussing themes and endgames, so you should be warned of major spoilers for the following pieces:
The Mouse, Norbez
To the Wolves, E. K. White
Rite of Passage, Arno von Borries (be advised that some playthroughs include description of sexual assault)
Hill Ridge Lost and Found, Jeremy Pflasterer
Sigil Reader (Field), verityvirtue
The four games I listed above aren’t actually all that similar on the face of it. Rite of Passage and The Mouse are slice-of-life games about protagonists at educational institutions — middle school and college respectively — but very different in style and presentation. Hill Ridge Lost & Found is a parser puzzle game set in a down-at-heels farm community. And To the Wolves is vague-medieval/fairy-tale fantasy. But they all concern situations where one character has been treated brutally or abusively by others, and the protagonist’s attempt to deal with that situation.
The Mouse tells the story of a character who has trouble speaking up for themselves against an abusive roommate. I was not entirely sure why that roommate relationship had become quite so emotionally charged, but I can believe that such things might happen. Fortunately, the protagonist has a friend, an older hearing-impaired woman who is able to offer some alternative space to live in.
It’s a story that focuses mostly on the occasion of abuse and how hard it is to break away from a circumstance like this. The protagonist is used to thinking of things as their own fault, and concentrating on what they can do to keep their roommate from getting angry and reacting to them.
I read a review that questioned why anyone would put up with this kind of treatment, but people do, routinely: because their sense of reality and their ability to rely on themselves gets warped; because they care about the person who is abusing them; because they don’t realize they have options, or because they options they have are too frightening.
One of the main things that stood out to me in this story was how important it was to have a character that cared about the protagonist enough to keep asking if the protagonist was okay, and keep offering help.
Hill Ridge Lost and Found sends the protagonist (“Ambler”) on a search for the missing Lonon, who turns out to be dead on his farm. Lonon, it seems, has spent years propounding a philosophy summed up in the saying
I may have been led astray, but it was me who done the walkin’, right?
It turns out partway through the story that Lonon blames the leading-astray on some will-o-the-wisp creatures that he regarded as supernatural. There’s an implicit philosophical opposition between Lonon’s hermitly lifestyle and dislike of trespassing, and Ambler’s willingness to wander all over the place, including homesteads that don’t belong to him:
A word to the wise, who often say they been led astray and claim innocence. Mayhaps you been led astray, but who done the walkin’? It was you, my friend, you who done it. And you are to blame. Will o’ the Wisp is out there, everywhere. Don’t let him lead you astray! Don’t follow them hollow lights…
At the end of the story, it emerges that in his youth, Ambler was actually responsible for Lonon seeing an apparition of will-o-the-wisp, as well as for doing several other fairly unpleasant things to children in the neighborhood — non-magical, medium-grade bullying.
At that point, Ambler reflects that he tried to do his best, and hopes that Lonon will forgive him, or that he’s somehow made up for past wrongs. And then he heads off, back to town or further out in the world.
Is this a happy ending?
I think it’s possible to read Lonon’s philosophy as rising above the role of victim: he’s had some confusing and unpleasant things happen to him, and maybe he reacted poorly. We don’t really have the exact details on how the middle of his life played out, except that he had a family and then lost it again. One of the game’s more mysterious and mystical-seeming passages involves the room in Lonon’s house that Ambler is unwilling to enter, a room that contains a crib and is full of light. Is this a real space at all? A manifestation of grace in Lonon’s life that Ambler is unable to understand?
But “it was me who done the walkin'” suggests that Lonon ultimately regards himself as responsible for his own actions and fate, whatever the precipitating incident. And he seems to have departed in a state of peace, at least relatively speaking.
I’m less sure about the character of the Ambler, though. His acts of petty cruelty as a child, and his meddling and trespassing as an adult, seem all of a piece. It was never clear to me that he was “doing his best” in any important respect: he’s come to Hill Ridge to find Lonon and to meddle with what’s going on there, but he doesn’t seem strongly motivated by concern; doesn’t have much of a reaction to finding Lonon’s corpse in its grave. What were his good intentions if he had any? It feels to me as though the Ambler’s final reflections are a last way of dodging responsibility for what he’s done in his life, before walking on again.
Sigil Reader (Field) goes the other direction. The protagonist’s law enforcement team has all been killed, but her ghost wanders the scene of the crime, trying to remember and piece back together what happened here and how. The story ends with Susanna having to choose whether to consider herself responsible for the carnage or not. There are significantly different endings depending on your take on this.
Unless I missed an expository point or some content, though, Susanna’s actual error was simply not to be suspicious enough of a person who turned out to be a supernatural serial killer with previously unseen powers. It’s at worst a failing of judgment, and possibly no more than one of those horrible things that happens to good people sometimes. The problem is that the killer was then able to useSusanna as a weapon against others.
I read this less as a discussion of deciding whether or not to forgive yourself for being used in some one else’s evil-doing, when your lack of judgment meant that other people got hurt. That’s an interesting and sticky subject; I would have enjoyed seeing it given even more room to develop in this particular implementation. But where the Ambler faults himself (probably) too little for Lonon’s situation in Hill Ridge, Susanna faults herself too much.
To the Wolves tells the story of a girl who has been driven into the woods as a chosen-by-lot sacrifice by suspicious and frightened townsfolk. The opening passages were a little on the melodramatic side for my taste, but I found myself warming to the mid-game, where we spend quite a while experiencing what it’s like for her to try to survive on her own, apart from her village. Later, it emerges that there are indeed some supernatural forces in the woods, and the girl is empowered to try to take some action against the villagers who harmed her.
I played twice, and I tried to play differently each time — once in a more friendly mode, once in an aggressive one — but I got the same ending regardless. The game indicates that some other outcomes are possible, but both times I played, I entered the village and destroyed the lottery box that turned out to contain nothing but repeated copies of my own name. In one case I tried also poisoning the villagers’ stew, an act of revenge that the story didn’t really dwell on terribly much otherwise.
While I liked the texture of the mid-game here, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the story arc as a presentation of character, which is pretty standard revenge-fantasy stuff in some ways:
- people are unambiguously horrible to the protagonist by selecting her to die
- she runs away and time passes
- a powerful external figure endows her with the capacity to overthrow the system that harmed her, and also take revenge if she wishes
- she does one or more of those things
I would have loved to get more specifics about particular aspects of this: the protagonist’s relationship back to her home town, her feelings about the people she left behind, the reason that the townsfolk decided to scapegoat her specifically in the first place.
We are told, though, that the supernatural figure came into existence in this forest because people were being sacrificed and sent there abusively: vengeance is an automatic and inevitable outgrowth of brutality. It’s more or less the opposite message from the one Lonon espouses for himself. The townsfolk keep sacrificing more people in order to assuage the curse that arose from sacrificing people in the first place, and the cycle of violence continues.
Rite of Passage situates the player as a teenage boy growing up in a school where bullying is extremely common. As with To the Wolves, I tried playing two different ways — once as a friendly character and once as a more assertive one. The details of the story did change substantially as a result; in one of the storylines, my character was unwillingly witness to, among other things, a rape he was powerless to stop.
I haven’t played this enough times to be certain I’ve exhausted all the options, but I came away with the strong sense that there is nothing you can do. Your school is more or less Lord of the Flies. People are consistently abusive to one another, both physically and emotionally. You can try to stand up to bullies some of the time, and you can try to show some sympathy for your fellow students, but doing so will not stop the overall nastiness around you. Adults are at best ineffectual and at worst make things escalate further. If you beat up another student, your parents seem to condone the action.
Rite of Passage puts relatively little work into establishing fault. Character motives are rarely explained, but cruelty and viciousness is common from almost everyone, and the people who aren’t actually bullies still don’t seem able to protect anyone.
In all of my playthroughs, the game ended with my parents mercifully sending me away to a different school. In contrast with the savior character in The Mouse, though, it’s not clear that they’ve been heavily involved in protecting me in between those two scenarios.