You Can Only Turn Left

by Emiland Kray, Ember Chan, and Mary Kray


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sleep no more, May 14, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

I’ve made the point before (even in another review for this festival, I think?) that dreams are typically more meaningful to experience than relate. Like, just a few weeks I had one where I was in airport, trying to get rebooked after my flight was cancelled, and then after I’d managed to wrangle a replacement ticket, upon takeoff my seat was somehow flung forward and got lodged in the cockpit window, which didn’t hurt me(?), except I uncharacteristically hadn’t fastened my seatbelt so the only thing keeping me in my now-open-air perch as we climbed and climbed was a death-grip on my armrests, which obviously wasn’t going to be sustainable, so I reached down to try to buckle myself in but wasn’t quick enough so I found myself falling, for long enough to think well this is it, all my hopes and dreams and loves are ending in just a few seconds, I’m not ready and I never got to say goodbye – and then I woke up. It shook me pretty hard, and I’m still processing some of the aftershocks, but it doesn’t at all hold together as a story; it’s just a boring dream of falling with some implausible details, and if I add in that this happened almost to the day of the fourth anniversary of my sister’s death, well, the armchair psychologizing writes itself.

You Can Only Turn Left, as you might have guessed from this intro, has to do with dreams, though it carves out some space for itself by concerning itself with overall sleep practices and sets of dream patterns, rather than just expanding one particular dream into game length. This approach means that there are some grounded sequences threaded through the narrative, which let you catch a glimpse of the protagonist’s changing life circumstances and discern something of an arc. Their very mundanity is even sort of appealing: in amidst trippy visions, engaging with the way a new job forces you to wake up super early feels like a breath of fresh air (it does make me question why the main character seems so bent on never getting a good night’s sleep, or thinks that given all this dropping acid is still a good life choice).

Breaking up the dreams like this also means there’s less need to shoehorn narrative weight where it doesn’t truly belong, instead presenting them as a series of arresting images. And the writing on a few of these does feel like it conveys something of the immanence of the original experience:

"The air was electric and the veins of your eyes became ghosts of hot pink lightning. The static shock grounded your body into the abyss and you clenched your jaw."

The title image also is one that will stick with me – it’s drawn from a science-class experiment where deformed tadpoles birth frogs with spinal issues that prevent them from swimming in more than one direction, which lends some power to what’s otherwise a clangingly obvious metaphor. The game’s presentation also deepen its impact; there’s blurry, shifting text, eyestrain-inducing background images, quick pans and flashes, that aim to alienate the player from what they’re reading.

For all that, though, I didn’t find You Can Only Turn Left escaped the oneiric trap. Like, I played the game the day before yesterday, and while the vibe was memorable, before I reviewed my notes I don’t think I could have told you a single thing that actually happens in the game; shorn of the context and structure that gives incidents their heft, you’re just left with a lot of stuff. There is some gameplay here – there are a host of choices that mostly boil down to “try to stay awake”/”try to go to sleep”, albeit without much clarity about the implications those decisions wound up having – and something of an arc, with the protagonist exiting the story seemingly better actualized and having reclaimed their ability to break out of patterns, though I couldn’t even make a retroactive guess at what led to that shift. As a result the game is I think a success as an aesthetic experience, but not so compelling as a narrative one; perhaps that’s the most that can be done with such stuff as dreams are made on.

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