Common Ground

by Stephen Granade profile

Slice of life

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
An experiment in character-driven IF that doesn't quite work, April 4, 2009
by Jimmy Maher (Oslo, Norway)

It's damnably hard to write in the voice of a character far removed from your own experience, as anyone who has tried to read a certain recent Tom Wolfe novel can attest. In Common Ground, Stephen Granade set himself the task to do that not once but three times; it is a story told from the point of view of three characters in a slightly dysfunctional (but aren't they all?) family -- a teenage girl (Jeanie), her mother (Deb), and her stepfather (Frank). For an adult man like Mr. Granade, Jeanie is of course the biggest stretch, and perhaps unsurprisingly the end result doesn't quite work, having (like Mr. Wolfe's book) the feel of a writer trying bit too hard. Anachronisms such as the Mötley Crüe posters on her wall -- assuming this game takes place in the (as of its writing) present, it would be a very idiosyncratic teenager who obsessed over the Crüe as opposed to, say, Kurt Cobain or Eminem, and Jeanie seems more like a follower than an individualist -- don't really help matters. The writing from Deb and Frank's points of view, meanwhile, does not come across as quite so "off," but also lacks much real personality. Their voices are almost interchangeable, their personalities too bland. There are, for instance, hints in a couple of places that Frank may be sexually attracted to Jeanie, but whether due to timidity or something else Mr. Granade never fully reveals this aspect of Frank. Either put it in there or take it out, but don't go halfway.

The sames series of episodes is played out from each of the character's viewpoint. There are some problems here as well. I am frankly puzzled by Duncan Steven's comment in his Baf's Guide review that the game does a good job of tracking and remembering what you've done as previous characters and replaying those actions back later in the game. This wasn't my experience at all. I found myself having conversations as Frank (the second viewpoint character) and Deb (the third) that I never initiated or saw as Jeanie (the first). I can think of two possible reasons (excuses?) for this: 1) these scenes do not all really take place on the same day, thus serving to illustrate the humdrum nature of life in this household; or 2) we are actually seeing the recollections of each character, and these recollections naturally tend to put the viewpoint character in the best light and reflect her views of the others. I can't find any actual textual evidence for either possibility, though. This mimesis-destroying lack of internal consistency even crops up in the last scene, which is played only from the point of view of Jeanie. Jeanie here is suddenly carrying items in her inventory that she didn't have earlier in the game. Nor did she have any opportunity I could see to acquire them.

Perhaps the biggest mimesis killer is more subtle, though, and something I have to enclose in spoiler brackets. (Spoiler - click to show)During the first scene of the game, you are given every impression that Jeanie is merely going out for the evening with her friend, when she is actually planning to run away from home. Now, it's perfectly acceptable for the game to not reveal to you exactly what is really going on here, but it's not acceptable to betray absolutely no hint that this night is a not a normal one. Jeanie should be keyed-up, afraid, full of nervous excitement at what she is about to do. She is none of these things. Even when she steals money from Frank to fund her trip, she does it in such a blase way that I assumed she was just an habitual thief. The end result is to destroy the game's narrative consistency for the sake of playing a cheap joke on the player. It worked for 9:05, a game where the cheap joke was the point. It doesn't work for this allegedly serious character study.

In a sense, Common Ground is an advertisement for how far we've come in IF over the last decade. In spite of all my complaints, it's not a disaster. It's not a bad little game at all really, and worth the 30 to 45 minutes it might take you to play it. But when compared to more recent efforts, including Mr. Granade's own simulational tour de force Child's Play, it lack of technical sophistication and internal consistency shows through painfully.