Shanidar, Safe Return

by Cecilia Dougherty

Episode 2 of Paleolithic
Speculative Fiction

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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. Itís 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,Ö 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, itís also a bit overwhelming, and it doesnít 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. Itís 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 lionís shoulders, a womanís 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 ďYouĒ-character. But the reader doesnít need to follow her closely, and in the overall story she doesnít 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 birdís 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 donít meet up, or assumptions of player knowledge about occurences the reader didnít 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 PCís choices and actions.

Flawed, but very interesting.

I used the term ďstory-bitsĒ above. I might as well have said ďstory-bulletsĒ. 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 narratorís birdís 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. Itís 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 didnít fully come to fruition in this case. Shanidar; Safe Return is part of a series, so Iíll 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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