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A muddy meditation on grief, December 16, 2022
(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.