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Common Ground

by Stephen Granade profile

Slice of life
1999

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Number of Reviews: 6
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1-6 of 6


0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A small slice of life game from 3 perspectives , February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes
This game is a short 3-act play of sorts. You have to live through a single evening through the eyes of three people. I found this story to be compelling because it asked me to identify with people I usually would not have identified with.

In each subgame, the actions are relatively basic; I did not have to use hints or a walkthrough, which is unusual for me. Eventually, the game will hint at what you want to do.

Stephen Granade is one of my favorite authors, with the ultra-hard Losing Your Grip, the comedy Child's Play, and the mid-length escape game Fragile Shells.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A static story undercuts the unconventional narrative , June 21, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: stephen granade
Play it if: a character-centric, puzzle-less story told in an interesting way sounds like your cup of tea.

Don't play it if: you're hoping for a genuinely engaging character drama, because this is more of a snapshot than a full-blooded story.

In Common Ground we have an interesting fusion of structure and content. The story is told as a re-tread of the same brief time period from the viewpoints of different players. With the game collecting information about your chosen actions in successive iterations, the perspectives never contradict one another in the broad outline of what goes on - though their subjective filters of what is happening will flavor how characters deliver dialogue, or if they even say certain things at all. The unreliable, non-linear narration is strongly reminiscent in places of the previous year's Spider's Web, though the focus here is on character and there is no explicit requirement that the player remain consistent with the details of the pre-determined narrative.

If there's a flaw in how it's employed here, it would have to be in the fact that the story very much emphasizes the thoughts and intent of one character above the others. The scene is divided between two characters other than the protagonist, and as such they are less well served in the story than they might have been if the plot had only switched between Jeanie and one of her parents.

This is a device which has been seen before and since in other media, but not particularly often, and it is a device which I find suitable to IF. Bearing in mind that the "fuzzy memory" nature of the plot allows for an imperfect recollection of game events, it's still technically notable.

The story itself is perhaps less interesting than the way in which it was presented. In the initial stages, at least, I found it reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Like O'Connor, Granade is effective at revealing his female protagonist's character through her reactions to her environment. Jeanie entertains impossible dreams, like appearing in a Bon Jovi music video, and as a result is reluctant to praise much of anything in her actual environment, including her parents. She consistently refers to her mother's husband as "Frank", which is interesting for two reasons: a) she's known him since at least six, and b) the game accepts "dad" as a valid synonym for "Frank" without comment. This implies that Jeanie's attitude isn't related to the circumstances of Frank's marriage, but to some special dislike for him. The game allows her to believe that Frank is drunk even when we can later have Frank get a Coke. Her relationship with her mother seems to be better, but still distant; Jeanie gives the distinct impression of being uncomfortable spending time with her in the same room.

Jeanie is an interesting character, and her development through these indirect means is quite well done, but she doesn't manage to compel much beyond her status as a teenage-girl archetype. The danger with stories which withhold information about characters until late into play is that you risk underdeveloping them, or worse, telegraphing them by forcing too much development into a short time. Jeanie has a goal or two beyond simply going out, but what her motivations are for this are never explained to my satisfaction.

Teenagers are difficult characters to write well. Children, adults and the elderly are generally conscious of the roles society is asking them to play in a way teens are not. Transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a hellish process of comprehending things about yourself you may have never wanted to know; it's an experimental time of making light of things you should value, or taking too seriously things that will later prove embarrassing. Most of us carry some form of embarrassment or baggage from our teenage years, and the natural instinct is to translate this into unlikable, one-dimensional literary characters. The protagonist of "Where Are You Going", Connie, is a fascinating character because O'Connor reveals to us not only her basic character, but the tension between Connie as she presents herself and Connie as she "really" thinks herself to be - a social actor who revels in acting and disdains others who do the same. Jeanie doesn't get much of a chance to be likable, and nor is she given this kind of secondary dimension.

Frank and Deb, Jeanie's parents, are of a similar persuasion: while they are presented well in their basic forms - the harried housewife and the under-appreciated husband - they aren't much developed beyond these things. Frank thinks in passing about how he loves Jeanie but sometimes feels like spanking her for being a brat; but the game never asks him or the audience to think further about this. Deb's personality is conveyed more through very light puzzles - I'd call them "frustrations" - but again, we're not shown how she generally addresses her frustrations with Frank and Jeanie.

The thing is that there's nothing obviously wrong with the writing; and while the characters don't exist much outside of their archetypes, you can still use archetypal characters to write a good story. I had to think for a bit about what really bugged me about them before I realized it.

I'm fond of saying that narrative is about setup and payoff. In this instance, the better term would be "conflict and resolution".

"Where Are You Going" isn't just a portrait of Connie, it's a shattering of Connie's world. Her interactions with Arnold Friend, the antagonist, are at least as fascinating as Connie herself; Friend is a creature from the edge of Connie's comfortable reality, a man who cannot be manipulated by adolescent "performances" the way the other drooling boys can. Connie's encounter with Friend slowly strips away her sense of security in her presented character. In other words, O'Connor is doing more than telling us who Connie is: she's throwing obstacles in the path of Connie's existence and telling us something about how Connie navigates (or fails to navigate) them.

Jeanie, by comparison, never really encounters obstacles. There are a couple of very minor inconveniences that slow her down, sure, but at no point is she really in danger of failing in her goals. We see who she is, she does what she does, and that's it. There's no conflict. Common Ground lacks it, and as result it lacks drive, it lacks thrust. It is content to present its characters without really challenging them.

As a result, while hardly an incompetent work, Common Ground never attains the edge it might otherwise have had as an IF short story.

(P.S. The comparison to "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" isn't because I particularly think the author was influenced by O'Connor; it's more that I found O'Connor's story instructive in examining the flaws of Common Ground.)

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
An interesting idea that doesn't quite deliver, September 13, 2010
by Bernie (Fredericksburg, VA)
In this game, you play the same scene as several different characters. After my first play through, I enjoyed the story but was disappointed that there were no puzzles to speak of. (I'm a puzzlephile!) However, I did play the game back through a few more times to see if I could substantially change events. Except for the choice at the end of the story, I found that I couldn't really change the arc of the story. I tried leaving important objects behind, showing objects to people, and engaging in all sorts of ill-mannered behavior. All of this was thwarted.

(Spoiler - click to show)Even having Frank choose a coke instead of a bud didn't seem to alter the events of the story. I attempted to get Frank drunk, but could only manage to get one beer out of the fridge. Even though he drank the entire thing, the game insisted that he still had a beer to drink every time I tried to snag another. I also tried to have Frank catch Jeanie taking money, but that didn't seem to work either.

With a game that lets the story happen from multiple viewpoints, it would be fun to have more control over the events. However, I did enjoy the fact that the different characters remembered the conversation in slightly different ways and noticed different objects. And the story was a good one, worthy of the title of 'interactive fiction'.

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Nice idea but not developed, December 31, 2009
by Grey (Italy)
The idea is very interesting, showing the same story from multiple points of view. In this case it is a simple slice of life of a semi-dysfunctional family.

The descriptions are good, and reflect the point of view of the character, but there aren't any real puzzles. Sometimes you get the feeling that you just need to wait until the events happens. This happens with every character, so you don't really feel that you influence each other.

In the end, I didn't care about any of the characters, also because the story is pretty short. The real problem is there isn't anything that really drags you in.
A little bland but decent.

12 of 13 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.

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Creative, innovative, and oddly-flawed, October 21, 2007
by Michael R. Bacon (New Mexico)
I enjoyed Common Ground well enough that it was hard to leave the game to do the other things I needed to do for the day.

However, it has several odd flaws, most notably a few instances of technically poor writing. While I place story, characters, and gameplay very highly in my list of qualities to judge a work of IF by, language errors are terribly distracting for me. If this does not trouble you, I would recommend Common Ground very highly.

If you share in my distraction caused by little errors, I recommend it anyway, especially if you want to play a short, easy game with an interestingly and unusually told story as well as well-developed characters.


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