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About the Story
After the death of someone important, a mysterious letter is found that changes everything.
Content warning: Horror, Character Death, Body Horror, Implied Violence
48th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
This is actually the third full review Iíve written of this work. It is my habit to let a review mature for a few days before publication. The reason I do this is to make sure my thoughts are captured to my satisfaction, and to try and scrub obvious grammar and spelling mistakes. The latter only imperfectly. In Inkís case, for reasons Iíll cover, the settling process was tough on me.
This one is quite poetic in its narrative, and it deals with the protagonistís grief. With one exception, Iím not having a great run with poetic verse in IF Comp22. More often than not I end up feeling like the text is trying too hard in what it wants to accomplish and calls attention to itself. I get some of that same vibe here. Like similar works, there are enough Ďhitsí in the verbiage to keep me going, but not enough to pull me into its orbit. Additionally though, the poetry here inserted itself between me and the central metaphor in a way that challenged me.
The setup is this: (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist has lost their partner, and its every bit as devastating as that can be. While trying to grapple with their grief, they get a mysterious letter, perhaps from their partner before or after death. In fact though, it is an Iím going to say ďgrief-demonĒ exploiting their tragedy. So far so good, nothing wrong with any of that. But the choices the game gives you, and how those present are pretty bleak. There are times when you seem to have the choice to (Spoiler - click to show)push past grief, to reject wallowing in it. Selecting those, inevitably brings you back to the same state. (Spoiler - click to show)You can try to reject the letter as unhelpful, or try to embrace it as a loving goodbye, but none of those choices actually play that way - the protagonist inevitably remains in their paralyzing grief. Then the grief-demon starts intruding.
My initial read, and it was strong, was that the game seemed to be showing that there was no escape from grief, and even wanting to push past it was wrong and needed to be punished. Boy did that NOT appeal to me. In a rubbery, conservation of energy kind of way. I found supporting evidence in the narrative where every single attempt the player can make to (Spoiler - click to show)deal in a healthy way is ineffective. Then, given no other alternative, when the player goes down the only road left, the text is unforgiving.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"Something reassuring but altogether cold
Telling you to give in, give up
Unmake your pain in exchange for something that feels like a remedy
Maybe not her but something in between
You know you shouldnít
But something like selfishness (Spoiler - click to show)takes root in your body
You canít help but drown willingly"
You see? Trying to find a way out of grief is something you should resist! That canít be the message of the piece, can it?? Sure, in context this is a (Spoiler - click to show)demonís seduction but thatís the metaphor! For what, healing from grief? Nooo, surely not. Letís take a hard look at the word Ďselfishnessí above. The protagonist is clearly suffering here, and has tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to get out of the spiral. This is selfishness? No, this is hopelessness. That single bit of poetic license muddies the metaphor so much with its Puritanical judgement that I spun for days. One word!! (Well, in combination with the narrative choices.) Is it selfish to want relief from grief? Is endless self-flagellation the only honorable response to tragedy?
So if not grief itself what even is the (Spoiler - click to show)grief-demon then? I mean there are definitely unhealthy ways to handle grief: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal ideation. Maybe those are the metaphor? Ok, but then what is the story saying? (Spoiler - click to show)That no matter what the protagonist tries, its gonna end there? Is that better or worse? If this is a cautionary tale, what is the untaken option that the player tragically rejected?
Now, I played through a few times. There is one path where you can enlist a therapist for aid. It is very possible this path could answer everything I grappled with above. Unfortunately, that path seemed to have a bug, where I got stuck on a screen and could not progress. So all Iím left with is a work that consistently rejects or refutes player attempts to deal with grief, and metaphorically casts the effort of trying as (Spoiler - click to show)inevitably (and cravenly) submitting to a demon! If the therapist was the Ďgood pathí, that was a supremely unfortunate and impactful bug.
There is another alternative. Rather than as a Metaphor for Grieving, this could be read as a simple, tragic character study/horror tale, where (Spoiler - click to show)a damaged protagonist, unable to let go of grief is doomed by that. If so, the poetry and interactivity of the work is fighting against the narrative. Poetic prose with its pithy clauses, unnatural rhythms and imagery is biased to the abstract, actively encouraging a metaphorical read. Character studies live and die by their details, by their lived-in specificity. A tragic character study would have been much better served by spare, concisely-observed natural language, most especially because you need to sell the player on why their choices arenít working.
I held it up as many ways as I could think of, and none of them worked for me. I welcome reads that show me where I got it wrong. Was it Bouncy? Oh my yes, for several days. Was it Engaging? I mean, technically yes, I couldnít stop coming back to it, long after Iíd played and written reviews of other works. Was it Engaging in the sense I meant when I set that criteria? Not really, no. It wasnít pulling me into the authorís creation, embracing and delighting in the authorís vision. Is my delight the most important thing though? Where is the place for Challenging? Is a Challenging work without a coherent challenge anything other than hollow provocation? I think Iím left where I started: Bouncy and Intrusively Buggy (both the stuck path, and Texture's in-your-face font resize problem). Iím so sorry work, I tried, I really tried.
Playtime: 20min, 2.5 endings.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Bouncy/Intrusive
Would Play Again? How masochistic do you think I am???
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
A grieving narrator finds a letter with a secret. Playthrough: 10-15 mins
This short game had the cadence of song lyrics, and I found Texture a good fit for the story: I ended up reading the verb (which, in Texture, you drag to the relevant word in the prose) like a sort of chorus.
The loss is depicted as historic, yet the narratorís feelings are raw, unaddressed, difficult to disclose to others. That gave the developing story a creeping horror(Spoiler - click to show), one which can be read as literal or metaphysical.
I have only minor gripes related to the aesthetics of the platform itself - I wish Texture would display the text at the same size regardless of the amount of text on screen, and so could be more legible. But this is no fault of the author, and Iím not inclined to attribute it to pacing.
A commendable use of this particular platform to tell a story about an unresolved, malignant grief.
This is a Texture game, involving dragging commands onto nouns, one of several written in a writing group and entered into IFComp.
This one deals with grief; a loved one is gone, and a letter from her appears and follows you.
I played through twice, one being peaceful and accepting, one being hateful and destructive. I felt like it made a lot more sense the second way. This game has poetic and abstract style, and I didn't connect with it. By that, I mean I would often read a page and feel like I couldn't remember anything I read or anything I felt. The words felt slippery in brain.
Overall I liked the branching paths, but I didn't like how the text often lacked paragraph breaks and sometimes changed font size dramatically from one page to the next; I know that can be a stylistic effect but I couldn't the connection between the text and the font size.
Overall, I like surreal games and enjoyed the 'dark' ending of this. But the formatting and phrasing threw me for a loop.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
In one or another of my reviews, I think Iíve said that what Iím generally trying to do here is look at what a game seems to be saying, then engage with that somehow; depending on the work, that might mean analyzing whether or how the game meets that goal, or talking about my personal response to the questions it raises, or whatever seems most interesting or productive to talk about. But thatís the starting point: what is the author and/or game getting at?
Where things get difficult for me is when I finish a game and Iím not sure how to answer that question. Sometimes the general gist is clear, but thereís something about the implementation that muddies things up, so thatís a reasonable jumping off point. And sometimes whatís being communicated is mostly just: this is a game, have fun with it. Thatís fine too! But INK represents the most challenging category; I get the themes the author is working with, and some of how the game folds, spindles, and mutilates them through its interactivity makes sense to me. But the different pieces are stubbornly failing to come into focus for me, and Iím honestly not sure whether thatís a reflection on the work, or on the reviewer (who, having just had a flu shot, is maybe having a hard time getting anything to come into focus right now). I suppose thereís nothing for it but to jump in and describe how I experienced the game, but apologies if this review winds up even less edifying than is typical.
Starting with the basics, INK is the authorís second entry in the Comp, after U.S. Route 160 Ė props for industriousness! Ė but the focus on loss, the two strike me as fairly different. For one think, INK invokes poetry more than prose in how it presents its words. For the most part there are complete sentences, and only a few rhymes, but line breaks make the reader pause and engage with the writing in a slower way:
Everyone talks about starting over
but itís all fluff and no detail
nothing about the process of
rewiring your brain
As this excerpt indicates, the story is all about a protagonist coming to grips with the death of a loved one Ė I believe itís a romantic partner, but I could be misremembering whether the possibility of a family member or friend is left open. In fact the game is short on specifics Ė who the protagonist is, where the action is taking place, even what happened to the dead woman Ė which usually I dislike, but wasnít as much of a barrier as usual for me here. Thatís because while the narrative may be vague, the mental and emotional contours of the protagonistís grief are drawn with firm assurance. The above-quoted bit rings extremely true to me, and thereís a later scene where you attend a support group that also hits hard:
You donít look anyone in the eyes
Itís easier to pretend thereís no one listening
But the words are scraped out
And suddenly you canít stop
Youíre telling every anecdote you can find
About the wildflowers sheíd find
The little flecks of green in her eyes
How she was the purest kind of kind
She lives again in the pauses between breath
The gameís inciting incident is also strong, and similarly seems to me to say something true about the experience of losing someone. The protagonist is haunted by a letter that she thinks her dead loved one wrote to her before she died; she catches glimpses of it, finally finds it at a park bench that was special to the two of them, then brings it back to her home and gives it pride of place on the mantle while deciding whether or not to read it. Itís a potent image for what we carry of those whoíve passed on before us Ė in the authorís notes for my last game, I talked about the joys and sorrows of having a mental model of oneís predecessors still rattling around oneís brain Ė and also resonates with the more concrete hope that thereís something, anything left of your dead loved one that can still speak to you, share a new word, so that the relationship isnít completely and eternally finished.
The envelope isnít just an envelope, though. Itís printed with a dark, menacing ink that bleeds through the paper and infects the protagonistís thoughts, before eventually becoming concrete in a distorted image of the dead woman who takes up residence with the protagonist. This fantastical twist provides the spur for interactivity, as there are quite a lot of choices and quite a lot of branching. You can accept help or wallow in self-pity, you can resign yourself to your new living situation or try to reject the inky double.
And I confess, hereís where the game lost me, because I started to lose track of the metaphor. Is this about having oneís life taken over by the memory of your loved one, so you canít move forward and engage with those who are still living? If thatís the case, wouldnít the double have positive qualities that lure you away from the present, instead of the twisted parody thatís actually presented? And the endings also diverge, from resigning yourself to the horrible situation, to trying but failing to escape it, to become an ink creature yourself; again, I had trouble unpacking how to relate the incidents of the plot to the emotional core that gave the first half of the game its power.
I repeat, this could just be me being dull and suffering from flu-shot side effects Ė so Iím underconfident offering an assessment or any feedback on how the game could have worked better for me. I will tentatively say that I think there might have been a bit too much choice, and a bit too much openness to the narrative. Thereís a thin line between an allegory thatís too obvious and one thatís too diffuse, but when youíre tapping into something as elemental as INK is I think thereís more upside to marshalling oneís powers and pushing for the catharsis or resolution that seems most fitting, rather than frittering away momentum on too many different dendrites of story. Again, though, this could be wrong and if Iíd played the game in other circumstances I might have thought it held together beautifully. At any rate, while it didnít completely land for me, the well-observed depiction of mourning and evocative central image mean that I still found INK a rewarding experience.
The author's two entries in IFComp are interesting bookends: in US Route 160, you're fleeing a dislikable fiance, and here, well, someone you like dies. I found US Route 160 to be the more evocative of the two. Perhaps it's my general dislike for Texture, even when using my finger on a phone. I seem to let the dialog box drop in just the wrong place, and it breaks immersion for me. So this may have colored things. More importantly, perhaps another reason INK didn't resonate as much with me was I never felt the lost of a fiancee, and my family's marriages aren't terribly happy. The closest I've got is losing longtime pets, and what happened to the protagonist reminded me of having my life dented for a while. But fortunately things snapped back. My experience was to have some cat beds lying around, so I could look at them a bit, or have a cupboard full of toys. I didn't work at the desk where one cat snuck behind one day and died for a while. So I spent time and emotion avoiding parts of my living area. In that respect, I was like the protagonist who saw ink in places where their fiancee had been. But I guess a cat only takes up so much of the bed. And also my cats were old. So I never had that sudden shock of loss.
And I may be stony about all of this. But I hope I appreciate the agent that spreads the ink: a letter from your fiancee, after she's died. It's not lost in a corner but found while walking around. It seems like it should be just the thing you need, an unexpected gift, something you should be very happy about. But it winds up driving you crazy. You can't even open it, until you do, and things get worse. Then people around you give you the standard advice, and there's always the overtone of "boy, you're going a bit crazier than you need, eh?" I see how this could parallel the anxiety of getting an email from a friend you've lost contact with, whether you still like them or not.
The image of ink spreading and making its own space is potentially powerful, but it seems IFComp has a few games about grief and loss, and I'm very worried that my opinion of them is based on whichever I play first, or what mood I'm in when I play. In this case, INK was one of the later entries I looked at. So it feels dismissive to say "yes yes I know already losing stuff sucks and I don't know how to get over that and you know I don't and I know you know I don't" and so forth" but I can't stop thinking it. Then it happens to me, and I'm on the other side, and of course people don't understand. I remember misplacing something. I realize I missed it and still do. I don't care that I managed to deal with it. But dealing sucked and sucked energy. And so I get all that (I think).
Still, games about general social isolation are more my jam. The frustration and deep thought feel more productive for me, and I recognize that bias, and while INK establishes grief makes it hard to be constructive, it hits a wall with me. It feels like it overplays its hand a bit by the end. I don't know what's missing. Perhaps the choices between giving in and not giving in feel too binary and abstract, given how the ink takes over. Or perhaps I (still) don't have the proper life experience to appreciate this, yet. But I do have a corner of my heart that fears being able to appreciate this a bit too fully, and maybe I'm deciding not to look at it, like the protagonist avoids looking at the letter, for a while.