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About the Story
A game that I used as a repository for writing my thoughts; made unconsciously.
Press Z to continue or choose an option.
The image is a pixelated version of http://www.refuges.info/photos_points/1584.jpeg
Content warning: Explicit sexual content and some violence, all purely on the level of text and not images.
59th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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Adapted from a review on intfiction.org
This browser-based game uses a 1980s color scheme and pixelated typeface, with a rather small window for text beneath a static image of a house or hut embedded in a snowbank. Game navigation is simplicity itself: Up/down keys move the cursor, and Z selects a choice or continues reading. No authoring system is listed, so I assume this is a home-brew effort. I found no bugs and the game played smoothly for me every iteration through it.
The game’s epigram is a quote from Japanese poet Shumpo Soki (“My sword leans against the sky. / With its polished blade I’ll behead / The Buddha and all of his saints”) before its opening proper:
"You are a man being sexually penetrated in a hut in the alps. … You are being entered, no doubt about that. You could use more lube."
Soon thoughts turn to the man penetrating you:
"Time for reflection: You don’t have the capacity to kill."
This casual swinging between mood, tension, and tone persists throughout the game. The choices offered tend to fall between the static and the dynamic, negotiation versus lashing out, security versus risk-taking.
The author lists Death by Lightning as experimental, “a repository for writing my thoughts; made unconsciously.” The prose flows into unforeseen territory like water seeking its own level. It’s intensely personal, an invitation into a consciousness, yet the reader is kept at arm’s length at all moments, as though instinctively self-protective. This is a raw and searching text, but not a confessional one.
That self-protectiveness is what keeps the narrator a touch too distant and unindividuated. Sometimes the abstractions do beg the player to stick with them. (“What sort of closeness do you have with the command of your insurgency?” is perhaps the one line in the game I have to question outright.) The ambiguity works against the game to some degree, but it is an artistic effect, and it’s used to its fullest here.
None of the prose is throwaway, though. The author managed to form several concrete scenes in my mind, impressive when limited to an interface all of five lines, 18 characters wide, presenting one sentence at a time. With each brief passage displayed in solitude, and having to press a key to see the next, the effect is of reading a long poem through a sleeve revealing only one line at a time. That focus shapes into a deliberative effect, and that’s impressive too.
Returning to Soki’s poem, it should be noted it’s a jisei, a Japanese death poem penned to convey an “‘ah, now I see’ moment.” Marilynne Robinson offers an analysis of Soki’s death bed declaration relevant to Death by Lightning:
"His meaning is not that he has rejected his belief but that he will move beyond the forms in which it has been known to him in life."
Oh my. Putting GameBoy-style graphics with a narrative where you've just finished having gay sex. That's a heck of a contrast, for sure, given attitudes towards homosexuality when the GameBoy came out. And my main quibble with all this is that you have to keep pushing "Z" to see relatively little text, some of which repeated. I've gone all old man yelling at cloud about this sort of thing before, but in this case, it was more that I'd like to see what's going on, and I'd like to piece things together better, and I wish there'd at least be an option to get the game to cooperate more after, say, three or four endings. There also was some worry I'd get impatient and start button-bashing and miss some of the text. I'm also not sure why the title is what it is. I found a lot of other creative and interesting ways to die, and there was lightning, but I didn't find the ending where you died by lightning. Perhaps it was the "best" one?
Unfortunately my enduring aesthetic memory is of the text chopped up like the timed text from Twine, and it backs up even one playthrough. This is okay at first when you're getting your bearings, but DbL seems meant to be replayed, and a lack of UNDO hurts this. This may be a feature for some. But in IFComp, with my goal to get through a lot of entries, I find it to be a bug. The work simply stops once you've reached a conclusion, too. Nevertheless, I took several diverging paths through and had a general idea what was going on, and overall what was there seemed good. So it's not a "waiter, the food is terrible! And such small portions!" sort of thing.
There was also a neat feature where the screen flashed, but it we assume all the threads are continuous, lightning kept striking at different times. I wasn't able to determine whether the player should be coming to a realization I missed, but I thought the screen flashing worked well with the low-resulution graphics. With more detail, or the game taking more of the browser, all the technical stuff might feel like it was trying too hard to call attention to itself. I fortunately don't have any physical reaction a flashing screen, but nonetheless, it was nice it wasn't overdone.
From what I saw, you're trying to betray your lover, but you're wanted, yourself. They have a truck outside the mountain lodge where you are both staying, and you, for reasons not immediately obvious, cannot let them leave. So do you take the truck or try to convince your lover to stay? Taking the truck risks accidents and meeting the local (very) wildlife, but staying in the cabin risks a fight, as they have a past that's not clear, too. Whatever your web of double-crossing and intrigue, you're pretty much, well, screwed.
The gimmick of a GameBoy-style game is clever, and I've generally enjoyed entries that give this retro feel. But unfortunately, with this entry having no exploration components, the design choice probably backfired in terms of placement in IFComp. I just wish there'd been more latitude to explore without having to repeat myself so much, or at least a way to increase screen size to see more at once, because there were some branches I didn't look into and wanted to, and without UNDO it was hard to keep track. Perhaps labeling a branch yellow or red based on how much you'd seen (some/all) would work, even if it violated the GameBoy aesthetic? The writing seems fast-paced and I was disappointed that certain design choices slowed it down, not to give us more chances to think about things, but to say, no, you can't quite move ahead.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
In a forum conversation about Lucid, I mentioned that I’ve run across other entries in the “short, surreal, dark” subgenre of choice-based games and found them too personal, or at least too idiosyncratic to the author’s specific preoccupations, to be very engaging. I must have jinxed myself, because just a few entries later, here we are with a stylish, moody game with some attention-getting writing that feels too solipsistic for me to enjoy.
Death by Lightning is presented via a Game Boy aesthetic, with a single static grayscale image that I think is meant to depict a cabin in the Alps; there’s a subwindow with scrolling, pixelated text, and every once in a while you’re presented with two low-context options to choose between. It makes for a stark, tense experience, which is underlined by the first sequence: after an epigrammatic quote, the player is told that “you are a man being sexually penetrated in a hut in the alps.” That is certainly a uh grabby opening, though at least it’s quickly established that this is a consensual encounter. The dynamics are complicated when you learn that it’s your task to distract your partner and keep him in this cabin while some other, undescribed event happens, leading up to your first choice – whether to try to persuade him to stay, or sneak out to sabotage the car. I played through twice: in the first, I opted for persuasion, leading to a branch where I resorted to increasingly-pathetic emotional blackmail before suggesting a sightseeing trip to Rome, at which point the game ended in a form of dissociation, feeling like a tourist in my own mind; then I went back and tried to rip out the car’s wires, but was surprised by wolves and drove up into the mountains, abandoning my lover but I think eventually succumbing to frostbite and drifting into incoherence.
I could construct various theories of what the game is “about” or what it’s trying to say – I suspect the title and epigram [FN1] point to not to literal death, but to ego-death and the possibility of enlightenment through a surrender or submission that negates one’s preconceptions about what enlightenment, or love, or fulfillment, look like, daring blasphemy (typically punished via death by lightning) to attain something higher – which might create some common ground between the wildly varying narratives and thematics in the two branches I explored – but as a text, Death by Lightning doesn’t feel to me like it provides sufficient scaffolding to be confident in the exercise; it’d be not so much extracting Deep Hidden Meaning, but inventing Cosmic BS, as we used to say in my high school English classes.
I will say that there are some sentences here I really liked:
He opens a window and the wind howls hexes. “Christ”, he scans the mountain anxiously.
And the bit towards the end of the first ending I got, the tourist one, talked about “becoming abstract to yourself”, which feels like a metaphor that has something to it. But again, these images never feel like they’re rooted to anything solid in terms of character or theme or narrative, so they fail to make much impression. And some of the writing in the second branch I explored is just not very good – after a series of near-syllogisms about God, the sublime, the erotic, etc., I got this:
Hyper-spiritualism is co-morbid with the path through it.
If I could decode the specialized vocabulary the author is deploying here I might be able to extract some larger meaning from that sentence, but as is it’s pretty clunky.
I’m not averse to doing some work to find value in a piece of writing – and I don’t just mean like Joyce or the accepted dead-white-guy canon, that applies to IF too, Queenlash and Manifest No are some of my favorite games of the last couple of years! But most good difficult writing, in my experience, wants to be read, and is written that way because that’s the only way that particular work could be written. I get the sense that Death by Lightning could only have been written this way, but I’m not convinced about the first part; I think it’s very meaningful to the author, but I suspect they were more focused on that than on making it meaningful to players.
FN1: atypically for me, I couldn’t find a way to crowbar an unrelated personal anecdote into this review, but I actually have one about the poem that opens the game! I’ve read it before, in a collection called Japanese Death Poems that compiles what are called jisei, or poems written in the last moments of the author’s life. The book was a Christmas gift from an ex-girlfriend of mine; I returned the favor by getting her a volume of Sylvia Plath’s poems.
Despite what you might think, we weren’t yet exes at the time we exchanged these deeply seasonally-inappropriate gifts, though unsurprisingly the relationship didn’t last through to March.
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