Shanidar, Safe Return

by Cecilia Dougherty

Episode 2 of Paleolithic
Speculative Fiction

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- wolfbiter, July 7, 2024

Oog-Ug Make Society, December 24, 2023

by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

James A. Michener (JAM! called by no one. UNTIL NOW.) was a singular author, wasn’t he? His most famous, well-received works were meticulously researched historical tapestries. They were fiction, or maybe fictionalized narratives where he portrayed broad sweeps of history through created characters (often generationally related). He crafted historical mosaics composed of individual, detailed shards of fiction. Characters were sketched only roughly, kind of subordinate to the march of time but just present enough to shade events in human terms. Michener was pretty good at it. He also was SPOT on about the American Electoral College, but I digress.

Anyway, Michener has nothing to do with anything. Shanidar is a tale that… no of course he is relevant. Shanidar is strongly Michener-esque. Michenery? JAMmy! Those JAMmy synapses closed in my brain early and stayed with me through the entire piece. A work could do far worse than to evoke that comparison!

Before we really invoke JAM though, let’s start with presentation, because it is noteworthy. The work is choice-select, with each choice pulling up a window of text, overlaid on a (mostly) black and white illustration. The illustration style is tuned directly to the narrative. It is reminiscent of cave drawings, often conveying things with almost abstract line work. When it does ahistorically increase detail to capture a character’s emotion or likeness, it retains the flavor of cave drawings, which is enough. It is a really nice effect, enhancing the proceedings at every turn. I particularly liked the rendering of (Spoiler - click to show)the group’s emergence from a tunnel to their new home.

It is all underlaid with music and sound effects similarly tuned to the current scene. The choice to make individual text blocks short and concise gives the sound work its best shot at not over- or under-staying. Text discipline was also an evocative choice. Mostly two to three very short paragraphs conveying the action and a bit of environment and off to the next. This is where the JAM of it really rang out for me. You see just enough of the onscreen cast to get a feel for them, but as much or more of the community impact on and from their actions. To be clear, I found this a compelling narrative choice.

The story itself is told in three parts: an initial tense escape, some community building, then a final migration to a new home. I didn’t get it right out of the gate. There were two things that made the work harder to engage for me, I think. For one, the cast is just on the fat side of ‘wait, who is that again?’ Particularly early on, a lot of names are thrown at us, some of them phonetically similar, though only a few get ‘screen time.’ Names without scenes are just names to a reader. (Notably, Michener himself has sometimes fallen into this trap.)

If not clear by now, this is an interactive fiction, not a game. The interactivity is a nifty thematic echo/expansion of broad sweep storytelling. Let’s think of a JAMmy story thread as a series of discrete action snapshots, implicitly connected by the reader into a larger timeline. Are you thinking of it? Just do it, humor me. We’ll call that the X direction. In the Y direction, we have discrete characters intersecting or not with each other, each with their own suite of discrete scenes that march forward along X. The interactivity lets us decide which threads to look in on. It makes us a drone of sort - where our autonomy is expressed in what we choose to watch while concurrent actions happen outside our view. We are experiencing two-dimensional historical sweep with a one-dimensional camera! Y’know LIKE WE DO EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES. The corresponding downside to this is that characters we DON’T follow remain opaque and maybe even forgettable to us. The story sometimes concedes ‘flashback’ options to catch up on concurrent activities, but that seemed unevenly applied to me.

The author does one really vital thing - allows a ‘restart this chapter’ option at the end, so the reader can maybe go back and drone-stalk threads they missed the first time. Really the presence of this option is what won me over. I intellectually appreciated the 2D approach, but found it sometimes made the narrative difficult to follow and engage. By letting you cycle a few times, you can explore the entire two dimensional space. Don’t sleep on this capability, fam!

The middle part of the narrative to me was where the work fired on all cylinders. Characters introduced, short one-off scenes with subsets of cast members, deeper intersections between the threads (and maybe fewer to manage) all painting the picture of a community coming together two or three characters at a time. I mostly had the cast in hand by this point. Strong, effective stuff, no notes.

The third part pulled away from me again. It is presenting a much larger time window than the prior two parts, so the sampled character work has a lot more to do and doesn’t quite succeed as well. Characters age, life events that plausibly happen in large timeframes are mentioned in passing leading to a ‘well I guess that happened offscreen?’ kind of feeling. The follow-a-thread architecture meant you were missing a lot MORE of the other threads as time whizzed by. It had a distancing effect, or at least more distancing. I feel if it had adhered more to the fuel-air mixture of part two, or even accelerated more evenly to the faster pace I would have better enjoyed the ride. As it was, it started to feel not just like acceleration but also getting thinner?

I don’t want to sound too down on this thing. Despite the taffy pulling sensation of part 3 it nevertheless really captured the sweet melancholy of time passage and generational handoff. And it paid off many of the recurring characters. This work stands out in epic sweep and subject matter; in narrative style; in thematic use of interactivity; in whole-package presentation. I really really liked it, but couldn’t quite overlook the minor burrs on the way. Sparks of Joy, Mostly Seamless, bonus point for a thrilling mix of uncommon artistic flexes.

Ok, you may be asking ‘why just Mostly Seamless?’ Was hoping I could just drop that and run. Part of it was the sometimes jarring time jump transitions in the third part, not fatal but noticeable. But really the big thing was, and I’m putting reviewer-is-petty blur on this: (Spoiler - click to show)At one point, in lieu of the evocative illustrations we instead get a 3D modeled archeological artifact. It felt unwelcome in the moment, but by the end there was a scene with actual archeologists. WHY WAS THIS NOT USED THERE INSTEAD? I don’t know why this obvious-to-me missed opportunity is such a rock in my mental shoe, but there it is. Look, the gap between Mostly Seamless and Seamless is pretty thin and doesn’t even affect the score. You gotta give me a pass on this.

Played: 10/17/23
Playtime: 35min, finished
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Mostly Seamless, bonus for kicking out the JAMs!
Would Play After Comp?: No, but I will probably check out the rest of the series

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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A twist on the kinetic genre, December 14, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

Shanidar, Safe Return is an interactive fiction piece where you follow a group of Neanderthal/Cro-Magnons first fleeing for safety, than travelling to the distant land of Shanidar. The story is set from the start, though your reading will depend on which link you click.

This was quite the peculiar entry. Not just because of its subject - while there are many IF games going back in history, very few end up that far - but the way the story is told. It flips between different POV or groups of characters depending on the link clicked, sometimes even going back and forth between present and (close) past. The passages, sippets of side-stories connected through the overarching story, tells the escape of Haizea and her group, their temporary settlement in the Bear Cave, and their travel towards the promised land.

The story follows a staggering 19 characters, including you (23 if you count the mentioned NPCs), which can be quite confusing. Even with the list of characters opened on another screen, the going back and forth was sometimes quite a bit, especially when the game is not quite consistent with the naming of the characters, and because it introduced characters almost constantly. Though, I appreciated the fact the game allows you to start the act over to connect more dots, and maybe even find new snippets.

With those snippets and the fairly concise prose, the piece reminded me of those documentaries trying to “reconstruct” how humans lived back then. Unlike those representations, Shanidar does a lovely job at humanising both spieces, through the descriptions of customs and relations between the characters.

This was pretty different, and I’m not sure I managed to connect with it as much as I would have with a more traditional way of storytelling. The lack of actual meaningful choice (opportunities to have some are plenty here) relegates the player more as a reader-first than an active participant.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in prehistory, November 30, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

Shanidar, Safe Return, has a compelling setting that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a work of IF before – Clan of the Cave Bear style prehistory. Jumping back 40,000 years ago, this choice-based game tasks you with guiding a small band of Neanderthals who’ve suffered an attack from some aggressive Cro-Magnons first to immediate safety, and then to a far-off sanctuary where they can hopefully flourish. It’s enriched with compelling details that appear to be the fruit of quite a lot of research – I really felt the texture of these people’s way of life. While the author made a few choices that I found worked somewhat at cross purposes and lessened the impact of the work overall, I was still glad to experience this story.

The game admittedly doesn’t make the best first impression – instead of a play online link or a game file available for download, instead you need to open up a pdf that contains a link to the actual website where Shanidar, Safe Return is hosted. For something that appears to be a conventional Twine game in format, this feels needlessly convoluted. The landing page includes a quick summary of the setup, but then lists links without providing any context – I wasn’t sure at first whether these were ways of jumping to different sections of the story, but as it turned out the game gives you an option of which of three story vignettes to start out with.

There’s a cast of characters page there too, but I found it hard to digest. The names aren’t drawn from any language I’m familiar with, a lot of characters have names that begin with the same letter, and you can’t refer back to the cast list once the game starts, which really wished I could do once I’d clicked through: immediately, there are a lot of different people to keep track of, and their basic information and relationships with each other aren’t always communicated. I was deep into the game’s second act before I realized that Uda, one of the major recurring characters, was actually the father of the main character’s son, but I think I was supposed to know that from the beginning.

Admittedly, some of this confusion may be due to the fact that the game is a sequel to an earlier instalment – those who’ve played that one might find this introduction smoother. Still, since I don’t believe the prequel was an IF Comp game, I think the author could have probably been more mindful of the likelihood that there’d be a lot of new players who were coming to the series fresh.

It didn’t take me too long to get into the groove of things, though, since the initial setup of fleeing from danger was clear and compelling. The game’s written in a very simple prose style that feels like a good fit for the subject matter, too; the characters are never dehumanized by forcing them to adopt stereotypical “cave man” speech, but it does make sense to keep the language from getting too flowery. Here’s an early passage:

"Oihana carries Eneko in a soft leather sling on his back. Eneko is never a burden. Eneko falls asleep in the safety of Oihana’s sling. He drops the doll, Pala, along the way. The forest canopy protects the band of refugees from the rain. They leave a trail of wet prints in the mud, most of which are washed away by morning. Dawn approaches. The rain stops."

There’s a kind of mythic, elemental resonance to this kind of writing, and when it combined with those well-observed details about how the characters found and prepared food, or gathered supplies for travel, or engaged in group decision-making, Shanidar, Safe Return works very well in a unique, anthropological vein.

Unfortunately, pretty soon after the initial act came to a close, I once again started feeling disoriented. The game started introducing more and more characters, and I realized that its idiosyncratic approach to choices – each passage ends with two or three links summarizing something different people are doing, and clicking on one will skip you over to that part of the plot, without any interstitial narration to make the transition less jarring – was actually skipping me over important information or plot developments; for example, in the first act, I found it most compelling to follow the thread involving an orphaned toddler and watchdog finding their way back to the larger group, but as a result I didn’t wind up clicking on any of Uda’s links, and as mentioned above, didn’t understand who he was or why he was playing such an important role in Act 2.

This sense of the game skipping around was exacerbated in the final act, where, their preparations complete, the group embarks on an epic journey of thousands of kilometers. I was deeply curious about how they were going to cross mountains, pass over the Bosporous, and explore unfamiliar lands – but since Act 3 also introduced a whole new set of characters, who appeared to be ancestors of Aboriginal Australians, I was curious about them, and by the time I’d gotten a handle on who they were and switched back to the original group, they were already just about at their destination! This isn’t a modernist story, where fractured timelines and incomplete information are thematically important – again, I feel like the game is most effective when it’s working in National Geographic mode – so I feel like a more linear approach to the material would have worked better.

The other authorial choice that didn’t resonate especially strongly for me is the use of some narrative elements that felt YA-inspired; there are some tropey romances, and the Neanderthal-Cro Magnon conflict is characterized in a fairly Manichean, diversity vs. intolerance sort of way. I’ve got no objections to any of that, but I felt like they didn’t mesh well with the dry prose style, and injected some notes of anachronism into what was otherwise an engaging window into a long-forgotten past.

For all that not all the strands here come together seamlessly, though, many of them do. I liked getting to follow Eneko’s coming of age, and learning about how the people’s foraging practices changed as they came to the Middle East from their original home in Europe. I’d gladly play a third game in this series – but would hope that it would be a bit more accessible to newcomers, and not lose sight of the primary threads of its story.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Ancestral Haven, November 29, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

A band of Cro-Magnons has raided the camp and killed most of the group. The Neanderthals must run and find a safe haven elsewhere.

Shanidar shows an impressive amount of research into the time period of its setting: western Europe around 40.000 years ago. It’s clear that the author is invested in learning about this age, whether as a student, professional, or an interested layman.
A lot of information gleamed from archaeological evidence about the people living then is included. Travel routes, boat/raft building, burial habits, cave shrines,… Different species of homo walked the same region of earth in that time, and must have interacted.
Atop these mostly verifiable facts, the author builds and expands the inner world of the characters through plausible, believable speculation about religious rituals, a shared mythology and oral history, the nature of relationships between individuals, tribes and across the homo-species of the time.

Although the amount of research is impressive, it’s also a bit overwhelming, and it doesn’t always serve the story the author is trying to tell. The insistence on giving every bit of present-day knowledge about the then-living humans a place in the spotlight hinders a clear focus for the story, and for the reader to latch onto.
The pace and focus of the story would be sharper if some details were left vague, mentioned in passing, implied instead of explicitated, left to the imagination.
Less intrusive details help in building a convincing world through an engaging narrative. In Shanidar, I sometimes felt as if the author was giving a lecture, a recapitulation of our present knowledge of humans around 40.000 BC, superficially disguised as an adventure story to hold the attention of those students in the back row.

I liked the overarching structure of the narrative. It’s divided in three chapters.
The first has a tight focus on a small group of people during a short period of time. The survivors of the hostile raid, frantically trying to save their lives and at the same time regroup, to reconnect with other survivors.
The next chapter opens up, with the main group having found each other and taking time to get their bearings. This chapter covers months, with meandering and branching storylines for different individuals, encounters with other groups of people, and boats/rafts (+1 boatiness).
In the final chapter, a newly formed tribe has found its balance, and the story becomes more focused again, with the destination, Shanidar, in sight.

Each screen has the text overlaid on top of a line drawing (white on black) of a subject or character from the description above it. These are beautiful and resonating in their simplicity, capturing the flowing lines of a lion’s shoulders, a woman’s hair falling over her shoulders, or the expression on the face of a shaman with only a few precise lines.

The evolution from a core group of characters, meeting others, joining with, intermingling, and splitting from other tribes means a lot of personalities play a part in the story. All of them have their own background, often sketched in but a few lines that succeed in giving a clear picture. All of them have a definite role in the narrative as it unfolds.

Among all these individuals is Haizea, the “You”-character. But the reader doesn’t need to follow her closely, and in the overall story she doesn’t get more attention than many of the others. Maybe the author felt the need to include some sort of PC, to make the person interacting with the story an engaged player more than a distanced reader.

In fact, there is no, can be no true player character. The position of the player with respect to the events in the story, the kind of choices presented preclude the player from entering the world.
Shanidar; Safe Return consists of a fully pre-existing story, a narrative set in stone. No choices the player makes can change anything about the occurrences, nor give the illusion they do. This is because there are no in-game character-driven options. All choices are instead directed at the player, commanding the bird’s eye narrator to zoom in on certain events or characters.
Within the pre-existing set of events, the player chooses which character to focus on for the next story-bit. She can opt to follow one character for a long sequence of links, or hop around and check in on the circumstances of separate individuals.
Time moves forward with each choice, meaning that the exploits of the others will go unseen in this playthrough, and can only be inferred later from descriptions after the fact. (If the player chose not to follow a certain character on the hunt, she will see the kill being dragged into camp at a later time.)

This is a brilliant idea, allowing the player to direct the narrator to recount events that she thinks are most interesting at the time, while the rest of the characters go about their business, have their own adventures outside of the immediate narrative.
The execution of this idea in Shanidar lacks precision though. There are often gaps where storylines don’t meet up, or assumptions of player knowledge about occurences the reader didn’t see.

Nevertheless, a very interesting experiment in interactive storytelling at the reader level, allowing exploration or the narrative lines themselves, instead of finer grained control of a PC’s choices and actions.

Flawed, but very interesting.

I used the term “story-bits” above. I might as well have said “story-bullets”. Indeed, the text is divided in very short, compact paragraphs, two or three per link. A summing-up of bullet-points in distanced descriptive sentences.

This works well a lot of the time, as it reflects the narrator’s bird’s eye view, giving a dispassionate account of the goings-on in this place or that. In some places however, when especially emotional or violent events are happening, I would have liked for the author to unpack the compact paragraphs a bit further and give the content of the text more breathing room.

The story as a whole is a traditional yet engaging travel account. A hurried start, a time of preparation and exposition, the final trek to the promised destination. It’s an archetypal narrative structure, one that echoes and vibrates within humans.

A captivating work, a great gameplay idea. Full of potential and possibilities for greatness that didn’t fully come to fruition in this case. Shanidar; Safe Return is part of a series, so I’ll be sure to follow up on it and see how the author develops this vision.

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- nilac, November 20, 2023

- Edo, November 6, 2023

- jaclynhyde, October 15, 2023

- Zape, October 13, 2023

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A dip into the Deep Past, October 2, 2023
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

Earlier his year, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a truly great book of popular science about the Neanderthals. So I had some of the background that one might need to fully appreciate Cecilia Dougherty's story about Neanderthals, Shanidar, Safe Return. Not that the piece is only accessible to people who already know something about its topic; but it can't have hurt that terms like 'Neanderthal' and 'Denisovan' alreasy meant something to me, and that I was able to get some of the many references to archaeological finds. (On the other hand, I did not play Time Before Memory, to which Shanidar is a sequel.)

In Shanidar, we follow a group of Neanderthals as they make their way from one of the most impressive archaeological sites associated with them (Bruniquel Cave in present-day France) to another of those most impressive sites (Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan). Bruniquel Cave is famous for the circle of stalagmites built by the Neanderthals. We have no idea why they did it; whether it had a religious meaning, or an artistic meaning, or something else; in Shanidar, the site is a focal point for ancestor worship and shamanistic ritual. Shanidar Cave is famous for its burials, and some of the characters in Shanidar not only end up being buried there, but are indeed identifiable as specific skeletons, Shanidar 1 and Shanidar 4 being clearly referenced. This plays somewhat fast and loose with the archaeology, since those skeletons might have been buried there many thousand years apart... but frankly, what writer could resist the temptation? I for one was waiting the entire game until somebody got the right kind of head wound to turn them into Shanidar 1.

The structure of the piece is fairly strange. There are several parts to the game, and each is laid out not so much as a linear narrative, nor as a garden of forking paths, but more as a tapestry in which your gaze can follow different strands that happen parallel to each other, and then hop back to follow another strand. Initially, I found this very confusing, and it does tax the reader that one often reads passages that refer to events of other passages that one has not yet read. One has to put oneself into what for want of a better word I will call a cubistic mood, thinking here of the paintings by Picasso and Braque that show objects in disconnected ways and from different sides. You'll have to piece things together yourself, but you'll manage to get a relatively clear picture, especially if you are willing to replay parts of the game.

Two things make the experience more difficult than perhaps it might have been. First, there are many names. I understand the impulse to show these societies in a broad way, and also to show three different groups of early humans in one game. But perhaps it's a bit much for a piece of this size. Second, the choice to name one of the characters 'you', even though this character is not much more central than some others and is not a focal point of choices, is quite confusing. It seems to be that the game would have been a bit clearer if everything had been in the third person.

In the end, reading Shanidar, Safe Return is a strange experience. We are always at a considerable emotional distance from the characters, nor do we make choices for them. We observe a story that is both wide-ranging and long -- indeed, there's even a strand about the people who will move to Australia and Oceania, and there are flash-forwards to today -- and which doesn't have much narrative pay-off. Sure, these people who have survived an attack manage to get to their safe haven, but we never doubted that and weren't too invested in them. On the other hand, there's a intriguing sense of scope. Something of the mystery of thinking about and dealing with the Deep Past has been captured here, perhaps better than it could have been captured in a more straightforward narrative.

There's a tension in Rebecca Wragg Sykes's book, in that she both wants us to be impressed by how different the Neanderthals were, and by how close they are to us (in fact, they are partly our ancestors, though not nearly as much as the Cro-Magnon humans). The moral is something like: we should celebrate the diversity of humans, because there's an underlying unity; it's great that we're different, because we are also one. It's hard to see how this works. It's hard to see how tales about common ancestry can effectively combat racist thinking, say, unless uses them to squash diversity. In Shalidar, the idea of common ancestry comes in the form of an ancient shaman called Bihotz, neither male nor female, and from before the splitting of humans into Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and Denisovan. They are a fascinating figure, but there's something of the same problem about them. It's hard to use the idea of primordial unity for the cause of celebrating diversity. I don't have a clear suggestion for a better way of approaching these issues, but perhaps it is something we can contemplate as we let our minds roam through the Deep Past.

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