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Portrait of a disappearance, January 11, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Abigail Corfman’s got an impressive body of work incorporating parser-like mechanics into sophisticated choice-based formats, usually with a fantastical, clever vibe, as in Sixteen Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds and A Murder in Fairyland. The Absence of Miriam Lane has points of continuity, but also departure, from this gameography – there are interesting systems to engage with, and satisfying puzzles with a fair bit of depth to solve. The setting is comparatively grounded, with the protagonist an occult investigator seeking to unravel the intensely-personal disappearance referred to in the title, with the ultimate explanation turning not on supernatural MacGuffins but developing a psychological profile of a seemingly-unremarkable wife and mother.
It’s harder than usual to talk about this game without spoiling it pretty thoroughly, both in terms of how the plot resolves but also the various distinct systems that govern its major phases, so despite the blanket warning about spoilers in my opening post, I figured I’d use this paragraph to give prospective players that if you care about such things, you might want to give the rest of this review a pass until you’ve given Absence a try (and I think most players would find it worth a try).
Okay, no one here but us chickens, right?
While there are no formal divisions within the narrative, in practice The Absence of Miriam Lane is cleanly divided into three pieces, all with related but distinct game mechanics. The first is all about investigating Miriam’s house and looking for non-obvious clues and things that are out of place. In cases of this kind, the protagonist confidently explains, both light and time are often out of joint – by looking for places where shadows are behaving oddly, or objects seem to have been subject to incongruous aging, you identify potentially-important clues (mechanically, this is accomplished by clicking through different rooms and links and sub-links for the areas and objects they contain, using a “thoughts” interface to signal when you think something’s off), and eventually discover where Miriam is.
Or where she isn’t, rather, because it turns out that she hasn’t gone missing in the sense of leaving, but rather that she’s faded away, into the titular Absence – an unmoving, nonreactive white void. In the second act, you need to remind her of who she is by bringing her personally-significant objects. There’s a rub here, though, because what’s led her to her current condition is a failure to nourish the personally-significant aspects of her life, passing them over in favor of obligations to others. So it may or may not make sense to bring her some things that are clearly salient – the spoons she uses to make food for her church’s bake sales, for example – without trying to figure out how she felt about them (you can bring most things to her husband, Arthur, to get what he knows about them, but there are often environmental clues to unravel too).
Assuming you succeed in that challenge, the final sequence involves bringing Miriam back to herself by “telling her her story” – mechanically, this means filling out a long, multiple-choice mad-libs style quiz running through her background, her frustrations, and her joys. Much of this you’ll have sussed out in the course of solving the previous sets of puzzles, but you’ll also need to make some hopefully-informed guesses to do well enough to get a good ending – I believe there are at least three, differentiated by how much of Miriam, if any, you’re able to bring back to reality.
This is a canny setup that winds up embedding a narrative arc in its mechanics. The first section is all about exploration, checking out the house and its contents for the first time. Because the signs that something isn’t right are fairly general, you need to carefully examine everything, without too many preconceptions about where you should be looking – but because the signs are pretty clear once you find them, the player isn’t left floundering and trying to read the author’s mind. Then in phase two, you go back over all the clues you’ve found in the first section and weigh them up, trying to evaluate exactly what they were saying about Miriam’s life to determine whether they’ll be a net positive or negative. There are also some more traditional puzzles in this section, fitting with the overall analytic vibe – many of these hinge on deducing that a particular flower might be meaningful to Miriam, then looking up its attributes in her gardening manual and locating it in the yard via an attractively-designed interface that mimics a plant. All that leads in the final section, where you’re explicitly synthesizing the individual pieces of evidence into a coherent narrative.
It also makes for a well-paced game. The house isn’t especially large, and isn’t inherently all that interesting, so tromping back and forth multiple times could become tedious. But because the context for your exploration shifts over time, and you feel like you’re making, concrete, tangible progress, it was usually exciting to revisit its rooms and understand more of what I was seeing, and how it could be used. Similarly, the interface is pretty streamlined. It’s not miles away from that in One Way Ticket, but navigation to other rooms is always available via a single click, and the list of thoughts and items is typically not that long (in fact, there’s an inventory limit – usually an annoyance, but important here to prevent lawnmowering, and forgivable because you never need to go that far) so I didn’t get bogged down the way I did in that game.
That streamlining extends to the writing, as well. The prose is efficient to a fault, with dialogue even presented in screenplay style, and almost completely devoid of errors (I found one unneeded comma, but that’s it). Given the large number of objects to interact with, this helps keep things manageable, and means it’s easier to pick out what might be significant since the important adjectives aren’t left swimming in a sea of words. The flip side, though, is that I found it a little dry. Fortunately, atmosphere is provided in spades by the always-visible illustrations – I think these are largely photos with the contrast blown way out, which is in keeping with the light/shadow motif that runs through the game (the illustrations also provide clues to some puzzles if you study them carefully, which I sometimes have mixed feelings about due to accessibility considerations, but I don’t think any of them are ultimately necessary to progress).
All of this makes for a solid, engaging game that I liked quite a lot. It didn’t quite reach the level of greatness for me, though, largely due to the narrative design not being as satisfying as the systems design. True, this is partially down to the workmanlike prose and uncharacterized protagonist, which even though I personally found them unexciting are clearly intentional choices. But I also found that my interest in the story didn’t rise over time and peak at the climax; instead it started out high and declined, with the gameplay providing the major impetus to get over the finish line. The opening sequence has the most supernatural elements, for one thing: they’re understated, but feverishly searching for tiny nooks where the shadows fall wrong, or looking suspiciously at a backyard sky that’s different than the one in the front, lends these early stages an uncanny thrill. And the initial beats of the mystery, where you’re starting with the least information and trying to connect the dots between the novel fantastical elements and Miriam’s beyond-mundane life, are pretty compelling.
By the time I was a third of the way through the game, though, I’d figured out the broad outlines of the backstory, which don’t wind up being that complex: Miriam was feeling neglected and overlooked, and somehow (I don’t think there are any clues that even gesture towards an explanation for this “somehow”) became an absence in her own house, an empty, invisible outline lying immobile on her side of the bed. From there, the rest of the game is just an exercise in filling in the details of this overall story, without any new developments to liven things up – and even the details don’t really add much to the player’s understanding of Miriam’s personality. There’s a bit of gameplay and challenge in determining whether she was burned out on gardening but found baking was still deeply rewarding, or vice versa, but it’s not a very narratively interesting question, and one limitation of the way the game’s difficulty is tuned is that the details of some of the potentially most compelling aspects of the story, like Miriam’s relationship with her sister, appear to be left vague in order to add to the difficulty.
Relatedly, I think the difficulty overall might be set too high. Judging by the little gauge at the bottom charting my progress, I wasn’t able to reach a perfect ending, despite playing fairly thoroughly and feeling like I had plumbed all the interesting questions and then some – in fact, the first ending I got was pretty negative. I reloaded a save and tried again, realizing that part of the issue is that you’re meant to spend more time giving Miriam stuff and making her more connected to reality, even after the third section kicks off and you think you should transition into the storytelling portion of the game. Even then, though, the ending was pretty equivocal. I think getting the best result requires you to really chase down every single potentially-important object – and ask Arthur, the world’s most boring man, about each of them – and probably do a little bit of trial and error in the mad-libs section. My brain is pathological enough that I often want to get 100% completion in games – hell, I’ve done that for every Assassin’s Creed game, there’s something wrong with me – but that compulsion never hit me here, since I felt like I’d done all the real work and all that was left was some grinding.
Switching gears back to the literary, I think the last thing that left me feeling more lukewarm than I expected about Absence is the message it ultimately sends about psychological health. As mentioned, the problem is that Miriam didn’t create enough space for herself and the things that brought her joy – an empty-nester treated with benign neglect by her spouse, after her kids went away to college, she threw herself into church functions and found herself consumed by bake sales and raffles, while neglecting the gardening and drawing that nourished her. This is all plausible enough when you type it out, but in practice what this means is that the stuff she was doing with other people, which largely seemed to focus on helping others, is portrayed as poisonous; her connections with her family largely have both positive and negative aspects that balance out in the wash; and it’s only the private, inward-facing hobbies that are unmitigated goods, with success determined by how much you direct her attention to those.
Look, I’m an introvert who was raised Catholic, I get it; the self-sacrificing martyr schtick is ultimately empty, and other people can be exhausting sometimes. But still, I can’t help but feel that this is a dark, antisocial theme to build the game around. Miriam draws but keeps what she makes secret; she plants a lovely garden in her back yard, but no one else seems to spend much time there. Art nourishes the soul, certainly, but in my experience the greatest joy in creating something is sharing it – maybe not with the whole world, but at least with one or two people. And as for the various church fund-raisers and events, even if the process of trying to do good in the world is tiring, and prey to suspect, selfish motives, well, that’s still better than just opting out entirely.
I can well see how other players’ mileage will vary on this stuff; the Absence of Miriam Lane is very well designed, with novel mechanics that draw you in, and I deeply admire that it’s unapologetically focused on a middle-aged woman’s desire to have the dignity and respect she deserves. But still, I wanted the ending of the game to reverse the negation that she’d suffered, to achieve catharsis by reconnecting her with the people who’d abandoned her in the transformative hope that things would be different this time. To call her back only so that she could replace her supernatural retreat with an all-too-ordinary one didn’t seem like progress; maybe that’s down to the theme, or just to not having gotten to the best ending, but either way I was left feeling dissatisfied with the game’s apparent views on human nature even though I’d enjoyed my time with it quite a lot.