Reviews by Sam Kabo Ashwell
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Related reviews: atrocity, abuse, childhood, feminism, fictionalised, gender, politics, persuasive games, developing world
The Forgotten Girls is about child sex slavery in the developing world. This is difficult material, and the author seems to be a novice at both writing and IF design. You play a child prostitute who attempts to rescue another and escape slavery.
Narratives about atrocity have a particularly strong relationship to authenticity. First-hand accounts by victims or witnesses are highly potent, even if the narrator is unskilled; second-hand accounts, by people who have spoken with actual witnesses, still have the impact of immediacy, but require somewhat more technical skill. Third-hand accounts, fictionalised, seriously reduce the impact, and a great deal of skill is required to impart the appropriate feeling to the audience. And interactive narratives are generally harder to get right. So I can't really blame the author for too much, here, other than underestimating the difficulty of the task.
Verisimilitude is the biggest weakness of The Forgotten Girls. It's set in a specific culture (India, with Hindu and Sikh surnames) with which the author does not seem to be particularly familiar. That said, the NPCs are not convincing as humans of any culture; their dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and they're conspicuously pawns of a puzzle structure. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as monstrous abusers. While the intention here seems good -- showing abuse victims working actively to empower themselves, rather than passively awaiting rescue -- the effect kind of diminishes the seriousness of the issue. If you can easily manipulate your abusers with adventure-game tricks, the power dynamic is all wrong. (I'm reminded, again, of the slapstick ghetto scene in The Great Dictator, in which Jews outwit beer-gutted, oafish Nazi police with skillets and flower-pots.) Depicting abused women as active agents in their own rescue has its virtues, but depicting victims as more resourceful than abusers makes the entire scenario nonsensical.
The problem's compounded because this world-illogic-for-the-sake-of-puzzles isn't just about NPC behaviour; the physical world works like this as well. A wooden cupboard can be set alight with matches. An ordinary car can smash through a brick wall from a dead start. A girl is able to walk (let alone flee) immediately after a vicious and prolonged beating with an iron rod. This could have been glossed over if the characters were less mechanical, and fixing it wouldn't compensate for the mechanical characters; but it does make the problem worse. Along similar lines, room descriptions are often laid out as ungainly inventory listings, and synonyms and close-but-wrong attempts are rarely implemented; you're never allowed to forget the artifice of your environment. (And from a gameplay perspective, read-author's-mind is a huge problem. There is, at least, a pretty good hints menu.)
It's worth comparing this to another game about real-world atrocity, Gigantomania. While suffering from similar problems (counternarrative gameplay elements; a general feeling of sophomore inauthenticity), Gigantomania made a creditable attempt to represent life under Stalin through modes of interaction, to explain experience through doing, to bring home a point by exploring how a system works. The Forgotten Girls doesn't really do anything like this; it's really just the statement "sex slavery in the developing world exists." That's not a pointless statement, for all that it makes for a less interesting work. But I think there's little point in fictionalising that statement if the fiction has less force than the bare facts.
Drawing heavily on the Alice corpus but not precisely retelling it, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is a guilt-ridden, surreal journey that partially reveals the history of a deeply messed-up family.
Partially is the key bit, here. Most of the story takes place in a state of dream-logic, laden with significance that can't be unpacked. Elements of characters are gestured at rather than explained or directly shown, and little that is suggested is ever really cleared up. Even before the dream-sequence, most things are not expressed directly.
The plot, such as it is: after work at his hat shop, Alastair Lidell meets his wife Catherine and their infant daughter, and they go to visit the funfair. Their relationship is falling apart: Alastair is numb and withdrawn, Catherine hypersensitive. As they argue, the pram rolls into the canal. Alastair dives in after her and enters a dark Wonderland from which he never emerges, an underground train populated by strange versions of his family.
A good number of people viscerally dislike Sentencing; the amount of misery floating around is so high, and the specifics so indefinite, that it's not hard to end up loathing one major character or another, and with them the whole game. At one point of the dream-sequence you have to (Spoiler - click to show)viciously beat a family member in order to advance. If you're sensitive to issues of PC-player complicity, you're likely to have a hard time with this.
It develops a strong feeling of doomed, dreamlike inevitability, but this involves to scanty implementation, linearity and other unfairness to the player; and this, in turn, ends up disrupting the dreamlike flow. One of the strongest examples: there are scenes in which a previously unmentioned character speaks up out of nowhere. This is just how dreams work, but as far as gameplay goes it doesn't inspire confidence in the world. And that confidence would be misplaced: the implementation is pretty ragged. At various points this interrupts the dreamlike flow of the game; it's somewhat too puzzley for the sort of experience that it's trying to deliver. When it does flow smoothly, these problems fall away; but the texture isn't as even as it could be. Its central gimmick -- in which you gather words from the text, then assemble them into a sentence that determines the ending -- falls far short of what it could be, and is incomplete even at its relatively unambitious scale.
At its best, Sentencing Mr. Lidell is poetic, evocative and challenging; at its worst it's noncommittal and incomplete. Whether its emotional impact is a cheap and nasty trick or an artistic accomplishment is going to depend heavily on your individual reaction.
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