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Harmonia, November 16, 2017
In college, I walked backward into nineteenth-century utopianism after obsessively rereading The Blithedale Romance. It's a lesser known Hawthorne novel. It's also one of my favorite books. The story is about a utopian community that destroys itself from the inside. Almost all academic literature concerning the novel touches on the fact that Hawthorne himself belonged to a real utopian community, Brook Farm. So I found myself digging into Brook Farm, and women's suffrage figures like Margaret Fuller, and utopian socialists like Charles Fourier.
Harmonia is an interactive novella that swims in the same waters. It's a story about a substitute teacher, Abby Fuller, who comes to fill in for a missing professor at an "obscure women's college, tucked in the upper corner of Massachusetts like a bookmark." That college is named Blithedale College. Brook Farm was likewise tucked into a corner of Massachusetts. I think I have a sense for where I am.
Before I get into the story, though, I need to talk about the game's aesthetics. They create a powerful first impression, and sustain that impression throughout. Harmonia was written in Windrift (also used for Stone Harbor), which is a custom engine designed by the author. Rather than clicking hyperlinks strictly to move between pages, hyperlinks in Harmonia either unspool more text on the same page, or spawn marginalia on the sides. These marginalia often contain additional hyperlinks the player must click to continue unspooling the main text.
A similar convention exists in Twine games. You click a link, move to a new page that has a marginal note, and then click another link to return. Harmonia streamlines that mechanic. Not only does it reduce the amount of clicking required, but by pairing the marginalia with its parent text, it keeps the reader focused. You don't need to reorient yourself after returning to the main page, because you never left. The game even traces lines for your eyes to follow back and forth to the notes.
When I saw how well this worked, my gut reaction was that it should become standard practice. After further reflection, I wasn't so sure. It's undoubtedly an elegant design, but it does make the marginalia feel like marginalia. That's appropriate for a story about academia. I don't know how well it would suit something like, say, their angelical understanding. Sometimes there's a reason to disrupt a player's focus. A changed page, reorientation, demands more attention, implies a shift in mental space. Nevertheless, same-page marginalia would be neat to see in more cybertext games.
Harmonia also pays great attention to typography and layout. I've heard many players bemoan, with reason, how unappealing parser games can look. Twine's default formats also attract valid criticism. Despite text being their main feature, many text games don't present their text in the best way. And that's no surprise. Web design is not easy, and tools like Twine and Inform aren't built to handle it for inexperienced programmers.
Font choice in Harmonia plays a role in the story. Different fonts indicate that different characters wrote the marginalia. This trick has also been used in books like House of Leaves and S. It works well as visual shorthand.
Apart from that, the game's design is essentially window dressing, but what exquisite window dressing! It demonstrates how a slick interface can propel a game into the spotlight. Without the interface, the story would still attract readers. But it wouldn't have shot as far, as fast, with less aesthetic appeal. More authors will need to invest in how their games look as the audience for interactive fiction continues to grow.
In short, Harmonia is as excellently designed as most text games come. It's a pleasure to navigate, and a lesson for other authors to study.
But what is it actually about?
The story puts its academic foot forward right away. Not only does it revolve around nineteenth-century utopianism and women's suffrage, but its characters are invested in professionally studying these topics at the university level. Abby Fuller, our protagonist, teaches a course titled Nineteenth Century Utopian Literature that she inherited from the missing Professor Lynn. We play through a few classes. We get to see selections from the reading list. Blithedale College itself is steeped in the subject. It was built on a site where Harmonia, an old utopian community, burned down.
That disaster still looms over the college. Relics physical and philosophical remain. A meteorite buried in the quadrangle, around which both Harmonia and Blithedale were founded, is slated for removal, which attracts controversy and student protests. And of course there is the question of what happened to the missing professor, who was researching the college's history when he vanished.
Naturally, Abby goes poking around. Naturally, she uncovers secrets. I'm going to discuss these, which means you should stop reading if you'd like to avoid spoilers.
(Spoiler - click to show)As it turns out, Harmonia was more than your run-of-the-mill utopian community. One member, Ignatius Cadwell, was also a dabbler in "galvanic experiments." By utilizing the meteorite on the property, he was able to construct a functional time machine. Except he didn't build it alone. Elsie Cadwell, his wife, served a major role in its construction, which both history and her husband overwrote.
She was also used as a guinea pig to test it.
In the future, this machine still exists, buried beneath the Blithedale College quadrangle. Professor Lynn discovered it. Abby Fuller discovers it too. And they both travel back to the original Harmonia when Elsie Cadwell, now masquerading as a research assistant in the present, activates her "Instrument" to send them into the past and trap them there.
Elsie Cadwell is the game's most compelling character, and most successfully embodies the themes the story wants to address. As a woman in the nineteenth century, her genius is appropriated, her humanity diminished, by the very community that would claim it seeks human utopia. Instead, she seeks her own utopia by traveling to a new century. What she finds is the same prejudice in another shape. Working at Blithedale is an improvement over working under her domineering husband, to be certain, but when she applies her engineering skills to help Professor Lynn repair the time machine, he considers thanking her with "a bouquet of flowers." No professional recognition, no payment, nothing more than a token reward.
This story is all too common. Women have their accomplishments stolen by men; or, if not outright stolen, then overlooked, sidelined. I'm reminded of authors like the Bronte sisters adopting masculine pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and Mary Anne Evans creating the pen name George Eliot. Even someone contemporary like J. K. Rowling publishes with gender-neutral initials. These are literary examples, but you could pull countless others from countless fields. David Auburn's play Proof, about a mathematician whose greatest work was actually done by his daughter, also comes to mind.
I mentioned "a bouquet of flowers," but that's just one straw in the pile that gets stacked on Elsie Cadwell's back. (And a pitifully small one, compared to something like Harmonia's breeding program.) Her back, understandably, breaks. She's the arsonist who burned the community in the past. Her righteous anger festers until it's hideous and unrighteous. As an antagonist, this makes her very interesting. Every step in the path that guided her toward violence has our sympathy, but that doesn't make the monster she's become any less monstrous. Guilt expands beyond the individual, into society.
At the story's conclusion, however, her character arc breaks down. I should specify: in one conclusion. At the end, Abby Fuller has the choice to return to the future or remain in the past. If she returns, she meets Elsie Cadwell again, and the game is forced to explain why Abby isn't furious during this confrontation. She indeed isn't, despite having been pushed against her will into a time machine, and being thrown back into a nineteenth-century commune that practices eugenics.
Instead, Elsie says that she did this to protect her daughter, Lilian, who's still living in the abusive Harmonia community: "I knew she could have people who would love her, if I sent them back." Apparently Professor Lynn was the best choice, since he's the one who remains behind in this ending. Abby herself only meets Lilian briefly before returning to the future. Nevertheless, Abby accepts this explanation, and Elsie appears to mean it sincerely. All animosity is not quite forgiven, but at least put aside.
I appreciate the story's desire to not paint Elsie Cadwell as wholly villainous. She's not a foe to be defeated, after all. She's a person in pain who needs to be understood. This resolution, though, strikes me as too good to be true, as though the plot's elbow has been twisted. What's more, Elsie's motivation for sending Lynn and Abby to the past is the story's lynchpin, and here it pops out.
The game's other ending has its own rough patches. If Abby decides to stay in the past while Lynn returns, she has no problem blending into nineteenth-century society. Although she emerges from the time machine's "enormous sinkhole" in "a cloud of soot and dust," everyone in Harmonia still "accepted [her] story: I was a widow schoolteacher from New York looking to start a new life." She also says it was "trivial for me to assume guardianship" over Lilian. Elsie Cadwell's own experiences in the past seem trivialized by the trivial effort it takes Abby to overcome them herself. I don't believe this was the game's intent. Rather, it feels as though the story, rushing to tie up loose ends, tied some into a knot.
This isn't the only point at which Abby Fuller's behavior seems strangely bent to fit the plot. She's presented as someone who loves paging through books, scribbling into margins. It's a personality quirk that works well with the game's hyperlink marginalia. However, it's taken to a cartoonish extreme when she follows loose diary pages that have been dropped as "deliberate breadcrumbs" to lead her into the time machine, which is vibrating so intensely that "my teeth ached and the wooden structure on which I stood swayed noticeably." The story may acknowledge its absurdity, and Abby may say "I don't regret walking into this trap, not for one moment," but that doesn't make it less absurd: both as a trap for her to walk into, and as a trap that Elsie Cadwell would've thought to set.
As someone investigating a mystery, Abby has to be a protagonist willing to snoop through desks, crawl into abandoned tunnels, break rules. She has no time for doubt because the story has no room for it. Rather than feeling like a character in her own right, she becomes a chess piece for the game to move wherever it needs her.
Because she's solving a mystery, it's also imperative that she knows less than other characters. She can't know about Blithedale College and Harmonia already: she has to uncover their history along with the player. This means she needs to come from outside the college for the story to work as it's written, but the game never convincingly explains why she was chosen as Lynn's substitute in the first place. The dean is openly hostile, and reminds her that she can be replaced on a whim. She arrives late to class, and her students are so much more knowledgable about the material that they teach the lessons themselves.
We're meant to sympathize with Abby, and to groan at the dean's elitism when she mentions Abby's "less-than-stellar qualifications." She graduated from "state and commuter schools, but [she] still worked [her] ass off." Now she's the underdog in a snobbish academic environment.
I was ready to sympathize. I kept waiting for Abby to put her critics in their place. Instead she moved through the story as a neutral entity. Her students remained smarter than she was. When she finally discovered the time machine, I found myself asking: Why her? She has no real investment in the college. She's barely just arrived. But she's already uprooting secrets that have been hidden for decades.
There's a quote from Truman Capote that applies here for me:
"The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right."
Harmonia isn't final in my mind as an orange is final. Immediately after finishing it, I began to pull it apart and put it back together in different configurations. What if Abby Fuller weren't the protagonist at all, and a student like Lillian Horace had been the detective who solved the mystery? Would the story feel more natural if the timeframe were longer, an entire semester, an entire year, with each chapter representing another month? What motivation would make more sense for Elsie Cadwell while preserving her moral ambiguity? Would it be better to remove her from the story's present, and keep her as a background figure? Could we remove the dean entirely? Or make the dean more invested in Professor Lynn's research? When we visit Harmonia, almost nothing happens before we return to the present; what would make that visit more memorable? Investigating the mystery is underwhelming before the revelation; how could the process be more engaging? More rummaging in books? More hyperlinks flooding from marginalia?
I don't have answers.
My final impression was that this is a story whose story is incidental to its themes. Its themes are important. Utopianism and dystopianism are popular topics nowadays, and it doesn't take much to see why. They're often explored in marvelously wonderful or marvelously horrible science-fiction settings. Harmonia returns to the soil, to the hard labor and practical requirements a society needs to consider. Visions about paradise in the future don't matter when people are being mistreated in the present. Women have it especially tough (a gross understatement), yet women still survive, fight back, and build wondrous things: in this story, a college. Education is one antidote to prejudice.
Harmonia itself wants to educate players. It's rigorously researched, filled with quotes. Its glossy presentation is a hook to draw more readers in and teach them something new. I wish its story had been given the same attention, but I'd still consider it a safe recommendation for anyone interested in digital fiction.