Spring Thing 2017: Balefires Burning

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Balefires Burning is a Twine story about a girl nearing the age of initiation in a village that practices witchcraft. She is in love with a young man who, though not a blood relative, is off-limits for other reasons of clan tradition. The text (as shown) is formatted like poetry, which initially felt a bit self-important, especially when I encountered dialogue arranged that way. This put me off the first time I tried the piece.

On a second try, I got used to the format as I read, and came to see it as representing the narrator’s ritual-inflected perspective on the world, where everything that happens is keyed into traditional practices and calendars. Meanwhile, the writing also accomplishes quite a bit else with its space — communicating the protagonist’s problem, introducing half a dozen or so additional characters, getting us familiar with the setting, suggesting the natural beauty of this world.

The piece feels very influenced by young adult genre fiction (and I notice the game is tagged as “teen fiction”). I found myself wishing for just a bit more edge to the fantasy in a couple of respects.

The setting is utopian: though we see hints of possible conflict to come, the village appears to be well-run with significant female leadership. The technology level is notionally low, but the village experiences plenty — of food, of fuel and housing, of free time, of casual changes of clothes even for people who aren’t supposedly rich — to a degree usually not found in pre-industrial cultures. There is magic of a kind customized to rebalance certain power imbalances in traditional patriarchic societies. We’re explicitly shown that every girl in this village is prepared with contraceptive instructions and is allowed to begin having sex at maturity. Other passages suggest that the village also uses magic to maintain its agriculture. This is all (apparently) managed with organic teas and a little light blood magic. Women routinely spill a few drops of blood to conduct some small witchery, but at least so far, the story does not explore any of the obvious follow-on questions, like what happens when they need to do a large witchery.

In the realm of plot rather than world-building, I also found myself wishing that the characters would be more specific and less allusive sometimes about the threats to the village and the discords that could occur there. A bit of foreshadowing is well and good, but at certain points the story slipped from foreboding into just a bit generic.

Despite those reservations, though, I did find this pretty engaging on my second reading, and by the end was sufficiently invested to play through a second time and see how much I could change.

The story is only a first chapter, which is perhaps why it is a Back Garden entry. But even as a first chapter, it’s fairly substantial, and it works on its own as a Call to Adventure episode. It also offers the player a couple of seemingly very important decisions, and when I finished I was not at all sure how future chapters would cope with the level of branching that seemed implied by what I’d just seen. On replay, it does manage to stick to the same basic set of events, but the player is free to very significantly change how the protagonist feels about what happens to her — and how the other members of her family and clan regard her.

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