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Grief #^$!s with All of Us, November 23, 2022
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