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Threshhold of Grief and Absolution, November 19, 2015
(Originally published on the reviewer's blog.)
The Internet has created a strange mixture of intimate empathy and dispassionate distance. There has probably never been a greater sense of ambiguity between professional dignity and visceral honesty than in today's creative and fan communities on the Web, including the interactive fiction community. In an age where it sometimes feels that half the Internet wants plain old lukewarm geeky fun and the other half wants passionate validation for grievances and desires, works that succeed in providing artistic insight without grinding any particular ax stand out despite the risk of being overlooked or dismissed as mild or conformist.
Crossroads is just such an interactive story. Not only does it present a beautiful vision made up of urban fairy tale twined together with heavy surrealism, but it also speaks to the need of having one's desires validated and appeased. Although a single experience is short, a surprisingly vast amount of content hides beneath the hyperlink choice trails. Different choices leading off from any given section reconvene at the same text far less often than seasoned players of choice-based IF would probably expect. Instead, choices are likely to skew off haphazardly in unexpected directions while remaining fixed around the core themes. This sense of multiplication -- of possibilities exploding into more possibilities -- is actually referenced as a recurring theme in some of those branches. There is easily enough content for Comp judges to explore the potential narratives for the entire two hours allowed for evaluation.
The story opens with a statement that is as universal as it is dull: "You want something." What distinguishes "you" from all the other wanters of somethings is both the thing you want and the drastic measures you're willing to take in order to get it, which are both ultimately the same thing. This is very much a story where the second person perspective is supposed to be you, the reader. As audience members, our unique perspectives directly form the subject of the art, and in some of the many possible branches and endings even seem to be directly handled by the plot. Crossroads achieves this without any sense of coercion or emotional manipulation, without forcing readers to identify with any particular kind of experience. It also avoids explicit customization choices. Some degree of customization comes from toggle words that change into other words when clicked, and this interactivity mechanism sometimes affects the output text of later sections.
One branch requires the reader to type original phrases into a browser input window. This is the most advanced mechanic employed. There is no call to engage in any real-world actions as part of the experience. However, one section simulates breathing hypertextually, and the constantly reinforced sense of slow but steady pacing as well as the close association with the reader's mind and the overall peaceful mood impelled me to breathe and click in cadence with the hypertext involuntarily. The mechanic with the greatest potential to misfire is the frequent use of long pauses before critical text appears. These pauses are critically important to the tone and the pacing, but the exact timing can seem a little erratic at times, such as in a passage where a line of text could transform into different sentences while the reader is still playing with toggle links in the paragraph above.
The plot is simple and primal. Determined to die, you seek out the advice of a great witch, who takes you into the dark forest and down to the secret water where you will encounter your true fate. This is the stuff of mythology and religion, the raw ingredients of the monomythic pattern. Here, however, this archetypal imagery and plot structure is not used to tell a generically universal epic, but instead to empathize with the psychological and spiritual wanderings of any particular individual. The whole work is permeated with a sense of Zen -- a loss of the self and its anxieties in the awareness of true reality. This is not some cheap self-help encouragement; this sense of Zen catharsis is dependent on the continual deliberate choice to see what is, not what you want.
One branch mentions the obvious plot hole without dwelling on it---seeking death, why didn't the protagonist merely commit suicide? The question is brushed aside very naturally because the story is an exploration of the archetypal Death of fairyland -- more than the mere cessation of life. Themes about annihilation coexist beside a depiction of a seemingly Christian concept of absolution. The story revels in this conflation of disparate death-related themes, jumping from one concept to another. Ultimately, the kind of death that Crossroads is most concerned about is the death of the personality, the surrender of the struggle to be one's own master. Paradoxically, most of the story's branches end by sending the seeker of death back to the normal world to live a new life. As the witch explains, "Death is only one facet of an ending. All change is a kind of death."
After the surprising diversity of plot variants, the writing is the second most successful element in the weaving of this zen magic. Not particularly stylized, it calls little attention to itself but remains subtle enough to match connotations of words to the context, such as "The fault gouge jagged and bare" in a branch dealing with guilt and absolution. The witch is not interactive outside of her central role in the narrative, but her voice is ominous and her character delightfully ambiguous. It is possible to interpret her motivation as either benevolent or malevolent. She fulfills the oracle and goddess archetypes in an active way that upholds the story's use of mythic imagery.
This skillfully woven treatment of profoundly spiritual themes is dressed with appropriate modesty; the visual aesthetic of the text and UI appears to be the default Twine skin. This seems like an unfortunate decision in an indie landscape where most of the attention goes either to the biggest modernized Zork clone or to the game that can scream the loudest about social issues. Crossroads doesn't look like much, and despite the skillfulness of the writing and the many intriguing branches, at a glance it seems like any typical Twine piece, even if an exemplary one. Somehow, this ordinary quality feels appropriate, because Crossroads is less about itself than most of the games that often populate competitions. Instead, it feels genuinely to be about us, the readers and Internet community members, and our experiences.