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A chilling, well-written character study, January 11, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
The Best Man sits firmly in a genre thatís typically less well served in IF than in static fiction: itís a piece of literary fiction, with nary a spaceship, broadsword, dead body, or tentacle in sight. For all the mundanity of the setting, though Ė weíre at a wedding in a small, well-realized Irish town twenty-odd years ago Ė I found the protagonist the most bone-chilling character Iíve seen in the Comp. By dint of his predicament, Aiden could be sympathetic: after a stag night mishap, heís called up to be the stand-in best man, with the twist that heís been nursing a years-long crush on the bride. Being relegated to the friendzone is, I think, a broadly-shared experience, so heightening the drama around this common situation makes for compelling drama. The Best Man isnít trying to create a universally-resonant story, though Ė it has a very specific narrative, with very specific characters, and what really drives the story is Aidenís toxic self-involvement.
This is all extremely well-motivated: long-term romantic disappointment can be tough to weather for anyone, but Aiden has a combination of vain self-regard, social awkwardness, and inability to self-regulate this emotions that means his infatuation with Laura immediately curdles, and by the time of the wedding, heís developed a whole alternate universe in which his sense of his own intellectual and emotional development means that he is now a fitting romantic partner for her (or at least will be after the inevitable divorce). The twist of fate thatís led to his brevet promotion is reinterpreted as meaning heís now playing a leading role in the wedding, and I felt a queasy sense of anxiety as he ran pre-ceremony errands for fear of what awful gesture he had planned for the big moment of the best man's speech.
Fortunately for my enjoyment of the game, weíre not locked into Aidenís claustrophobic viewpoint the whole way through. In addition to chapters alternating wedding business with flashbacks to Aiden and Lauraís college days, there are also several that follow residents of the town incidentally swept up in the nuptials: the widower Aiden bumps into mid dog-walk, the partner of the Civil-War-obsessed florist (Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, not Blue vs. Gray), the church organist who could have been so much more (maybe?) Besides providing some relief for the reader, these vignettes also highlight Aidenís self-absorption, laying out the rich seams of life heís oblivious to in his inability to see anything but (his distorted image of) Laura. Thereís also a sequence from the viewpoint of another wedding guest, Nick: a pleasant fellow who tries to make friends with Aiden but is instead ruthlessly judged, partially on the basis of his lower-class food preferences (though being a vegetarian from California, I share some queasiness at Nickís love of white and black puddings).
Literary fiction lives and dies by the quality of its prose, and The Best Man for the most part gives a good account of itself, with lots of well-observed details and generally naturalistic dialogue. Iím adding caveats because I found the Aiden sections to have noticeably weaker writing than the rest of them. Given the contrast, this is clearly the result of authorial choice: his voice is generally intense to the point of histrionics, and the thing about histrionics is they do sound clangy when written out. Still, I found the dialogue of some other characters also felt clumsy during these sections Ė the opening exchange with Laura I think has some of the weakest writing of the game, unfortunately Ė so feel like another editing pass wouldnít have gone amiss.
Iím quite deep into this review and havenít mentioned anything about interactivity yet, which isnít necessarily a kick against how the game deploys its choices but just an indication that they aren't whatís of most interest here. There are opportunities to decide on different high-stakes courses of action for Aiden Ė most notably how he behaves when itís time to hand over the rings mid-ceremony, and what he says in an impromptu post-wedding speech Ė but in most passages, there are options to expand different sections of the text through inline links. While this is definitely a game with a specific story to tell, and you canít change the viewpoint characters into people that they arenít, the process of playing The Best Man definitely feels engaging enough.
I can see this game bouncing off of some people, given the comparatively low-key setting and the off-putting central character (the closing narration from Aiden made me think that in the years since the wedding, heíd become an incel or something Ė heís that awful). But anyone who likes literary fiction, or a good antihero drama on TV, will find some real enjoyment here.
Highlight: I really, really loved the sequence with Bill, who can turn even the most innocuous of questions into a disquisition on the New Model Army Ė it made me sympathize with what my loved ones put up with.
Lowlight: The whole sequence with the brideís 15-year-old sister. Ugh. Just ugh.
How I failed the author: I donít generally listen to sound when playing IF, and thatís true a fortiori now with the baby since Iím typically playing while Henryís napping and I donít want to wake him up (or not hear if he makes noises). From the listing in the credits, though, it seems like thereís a great soundtrack for The Best Man that Iím bummed to have missed Ė though if there was going to be a Pulp song, I question going with This is Hardcore when Disco 2000 seems to have by far the clearer thematic resonance.