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Enigmatically fractured, December 24, 2021
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
BLK MTN is enigmatic in a way that’s atypical for IF, operating on a dreamy logic that’s not so much surreal as internal, focused on conveying the experience of its protagonist without overmuch concern for narrative coherence. On paper, I should like this kind of thing: while rare in IF-world, it’s par for course for the literary fiction which is my static-fiction genre of choice (see, “on paper” was a pun!) And I do, to an extent – but I while I appreciate the ideas that animate the game, I found that one of the author’s choices really undermined my ability to enjoy the piece. Digging into that requires some pretty thorough spoilers of at least what my path through the game looked like, though – and since I can’t pick out individual spoilers the way I can fuzzy-text the solution to a puzzle, fair warning that I’m going to fully relate what happened in my playthrough.
I said BLK MTN leads with its protagonist’s experience, so let’s start there: as the blurb says, we play someone named Jackson who’s on an existentialist road trip, looking for himself as he drives alone through the American South. We get hints of backstory, but only hints – it seems like he used to be traveling with someone named Ashleigh, but she’s not there anymore, and he’s got an old friend named Jim who’s set up at an art-college-cum-commune in North Carolina. Per the blurb, he’s also seeing visions, apparently courtesy of some entity he calls “Bluebird”, though as the story opens Bluebird has stopped appearing to him.
Whatever got him to this point, Jackson is searching for meaning and for connection, and visiting Jim and the eponymous Black Mountain College (a real place, as an in-line Wikipedia link points out) gives him opportunities for both. Much of the story as I experienced it played out as a series of vignettes, as Jackson attends classes or participates in college activities, meeting one or another real-life figure and talking to them about their life, ethos, and work (there’s ambiguity about whether you’re really meeting them and the story is a period piece, or if you’re having visions of their midcentury existence).
Again, in theory this could work – and I can see how for someone who has more connection with the figures and movement being depicted, engaging with the fictional depictions here would be very rewarding – but I have to confess this largely left me cold, and not just because I only recognized the name of one of these folks (Walter Gropius, and pretty much the only thing I know about him is that he’s a different person than father-of-international-law Hugo Grotius). Rather, it’s because the prose doesn’t feel as strong as I wanted it to be, and because the story, at least as I experienced it, was missing major pieces.
On the first point, as mentioned this is literary fiction, which I find really relies on the power of its writing for its effect. And there are some lovely images here, like a bit where Jackson notices the way some propped-up ladders create a new perspective: “in the sky, elevated rungs break up the air above, dissecting the clouds that pop through, framing and organizing the atmosphere into parcels.” But for every passage like that in my notes, I have several like this, where he reflects on whether he wants to stay at the college: “Maybe the fact that this wasn’t a preconceived idea meant I could probably fade out and on my in a few days time. It’s comfortable here, but I don’t want to be siloed into another group that I’m always on the outside of.” Beyond the grammar errors that fuzz up the meaning of the writing, the ideas are rather vague, and the metaphor of being siloed into something that you’re outside of feels incoherent. And a lot of the prose is like this, or just flatly bad: “the glove compartment sits there like a jeweled chest waiting to be unlocked, discovered, the holy grail of the last crusade.”
On the second point, there are a lot of continuity issues that refer to events that I never experienced: a character named Marisol comes out of nowhere but the game seemed to think I’d already met her and related a dream Jackson had apparently had about her, Ashleigh’s name similarly comes up without context, and prosaically, there’s an aside saying Jackson’s main concern when he first came to the college was whether he’d brought enough beer, but I don’t remember him voicing that in my playthrough. The plot thread involving Bluebird was also completely dropped in my experience of the narrative – I think after the second passage, Jackson never said the name again. Many of these omissions were due to choices I made - this is one of those hypertext-fiction pieces where links move you through the text without any signposting, and going back and trying different choices I’ve confirmed that it’s possible to miss extended scenes that the story may assume have actually happened – but some of them seem deliberate.
In fact, I don’t think either this structural issue or the prose quality are errors as such, but actually reflect intentional authorial choices. The game opens by telling us Bluebird’s visions are coming less frequently, and late in my playthrough I came across a few passages that seem to tip the author’s hand:
"Was there any use for documenting the uncanny, the pointless, the ephemeral? The things that existed more as unknowns than knowns, experiences with no explanations? I had been so equipped with reason that at some point all irrational experiences had started to be left by the wayside, edited out, rendered non-existent because of their inability to fit into the whole."
"It started to seem like there was more discarded from the story than what was left in the story itself."
"If you can read this, then thank you. Thank you for staying with me amongst the mistakes and errors, the inconsistancies [sic], the typos and run-on sentences. The translation I did from scribbled nots to my head and back again."
These read like statements of purpose, but also apologia, for the disconnected narrative and inconsistent writing. And I think I get it! Jackson clearly has some pivotal experiences at the college, but trying to reduce them to dead text laying out the cause-and-effect is a doomed endeavor, so portraying that frustration diegetically, by having the irrational – but most important – pieces of the story disappear while slapdash prose is only intermittently able to point towards the intensity of what’s missing is an artistic choice that makes sense: this is how we get from Black Mountain to BLK MTN.
So it’s an audacious move and one that’s motivated by the piece’s themes, but it didn’t ultimately work for me. Creating a work that intentionally frustrates its own aims obviously builds in a lot of barriers to engagement, but there are strategies around this. The most obvious is probably to make sure the sentence-to-sentence reading experience is strong – when playing BLK MTN, I kept thinking of Queenlash, a game in this year’s Spring Thing that had some of the same issues but which I loved, partially because the prose was amazing, sparking off two or three different indelible images in each paragraph. But there are other options too, maybe focusing on deeply-drawn characters or leaning harder into historical analogues or philosophical ideas to drift off their associations (Queenlash also does this, anchoring its plot in real-world history). BLK MTN largely eschews these approaches, though, at least in the playthrough I got – and while its restraint is admirable in theory, it winds up on the wrong side of austere for my taste.
Highlight: This review was already really long (and Henry is stirring from a nap – please give me five more minutes, kid!) so I didn’t include as many examples of the bits of writing that I thought really worked, but there are a bunch of them in my notes. Here’s one more: “After rinsing off my face, I try to rally to go to the music performance. The scene is wild. Costumes made of wire and cardboard. Something gestural and rich with motion. The rocking of the road hasn’t left me though, and I feel my eyelids start to droop.”
Lowlight: I wasn’t a fan of the Wikipedia links, which continue as you meet new characters – at least on my phone, they weren’t differentiated from in-game links, so every time I clicked one and was taken to a new window it was disorienting. And it sometimes made me feel like I was being asked to do homework before being allowed to engage with the story – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the historical context, but I think another approach, like footnotes, an afterword, or just more in-game framing, would have been a better choice.
How I failed the author: attempting to analyze a novella-length work of literary fiction when you’re sleep-deprived and reading it on a phone is a dubious endeavor at best, so perhaps I should have let myself be more focused on the experience rather than attempting to force my parenting-addled brain to extract overarching meaning.