Shanidar, Safe Return

by Cecilia Dougherty

Episode 2 of Paleolithic
Speculative Fiction

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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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