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About the Story
A runaway bride is forced to confront her deepest desires as she flees the demons of her dangerously religious hometown and considers what - and who - she left behind.
Content warning: Horror, Homophobia, Character Death, Violence, Blood, Injury, Gore, Religious Homophobia, Anxiety, Depression, Disassociation, Complusive Heteronormativity
44th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
Okay, this is getting spooky – I’ve had a bunch of similar games come up one after another in the order the Comp’s randomizer handed me, and this time the points of overlap are really uncanny. Remember how in Chase the Sun, the protagonist was a runaway bride, gay but on the cusp of marrying a guy due to family and social pressures, escaping by driving westward, and still wearing her wedding dress? Yeah, new bottle, same wine. You can even get to an early bad ending via a car crash, albeit this time it’s more clearly signposted because what do you think is going to happen if you choose the option that has you nod off while driving? But I gotta ask, did I like miss a TV show or something that’s providing a common jumping-off point here, or is it just a creepy coincidence?
There are some differences, of course. Most notably, instead of the lush forests of western Pennsylvania, here you’re driving through the sun-baked desert at the Colorado-Arizona border, which is obviously less lovely but just as pregnant with metaphor. Less positively, the prose is more inconsistent. Some passages boast a solid, albeit adjective-heavy, invocation of mood:
"It’s sandstone, dust, and dirt everywhere you look, wind-worn and desolate. Large dust clouds rise up, making the sky a grimy blue."
Other times, though, the author seems to get overpowered by their own metaphors:
"You’re on U.S. Route 160, a massive stretch of concrete spanning east to west with almost nothing in between. You could say it’s like a head without a brain – everything’s just swimming in the middle, floating in and out."
I can’t picture how that’s meant to work, and even if I could, it’s even harder to picture what the image is supposed to add to the first sentence.
There are also some typos that make me wonder whether the game was partially written with text-recognition software – “tool” for “tulle”, “ultraviolence” for “ultraviolet” – as well as too-quickly-vanishing timed text, that make the reading process a little sloppy (there’s also mention of an advertisement prompting you to “call 1-800-JESUS for absolution”, which put my down a Wikipedia rabbit hole to see when the US moved to seven-digit phone numbers within area codes – a long time ago, as it turns out).
This inconsistency characterizes the substance of the story, too. While there are at least three endings you can obtain, they’re all varying flavors of tragic, with the differences between them largely coming down to titrating the balance between fleeing your past and confronting it. The protagonist has more than her share of trauma she’s working through, and while I’m sure this is sadly realistic enough and reflects many folks’ experience, as artistically rendered, it falls a little flat. Her mother is a two-dimensionally abusive presence, while her fiancé is a domineering, reactionary preacher who seems entirely motivated by wanting to make the protagonist’s life terrible by marrying her, without a clear view of what he thinks he’s going to get out of the equation. I’m more than willing to accept that such people exist – I mean, look around – but as literary creations, these two aren’t up to much, and similarly, the protagonist’s angst, while dialed to 11, lacks much heft.
The flip side is that the protagonist’s lover is completely amazing, but here at least there’s some specificity of description:
Featherlight thumb brushes away crystalline tears.
Her eyes are stardust.
Galaxies threaded through the freckles across her nose.
A black hole in the scar on her upper lip.
The imagery is familiar and overwrought, but in a romance that’s forgivable, and there’s something affecting in the giddy, cosmically-abnegating delight the protagonist takes in a flaw as small as her lover’s scar.
The other difference with Chasing the Sun is that where that game ended, at least in my last playthrough, in a moment of connection, U.S. Route 160 seems to lead to the pain of final separation no matter what you choose. This is a reasonable storytelling choice in the abstract, but it’s one I found dissatisfying here; since the game portrays negative emotions with less verve than the positive ones, wallowing in sorrow means engaging with the weaker, more cliched parts of the writing, and most of the endings didn’t seem especially cathartic to me, with over-the-top violence sometimes deployed to make up for a lack of emotional heft.
I can understand the impulse to write downbeat narratives; with so many messages of positivity beaming at us through every channel, it can be empowering to reject all that and explore the possibility that it won’t all work out in the end, and posit that both fleeing from evil and confronting it are doomed to fail with the choice largely just a matter of aesthetics. But for that approach to produce an effective story, the darkness needs to be more compelling than the light, like Milton’s Satan showing up his Godhead; unfortunately for U.S. Route 160, here the reverse is true.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Thanks to a quirk of the randomizer (also known as “randomness”) I reviewed this uncomfortably close to Chase the Sun. I say uncomfortable because there are enough common superficial details it bends my brain to try and compare them, and I really don’t want to. (Spoiler - click to show)Two Runaway brides fleeing a union their communities endorse but their own heart denies. Two solo roadtrips through unpopulated stretches of road. Strong supernatural elements. Strong religious influence on the narrative. A looping ending, allowing you to explore different paths, but strongly linear outside a few key choices. A common abrupt car crash ending. Um, wedding dress still on.
That’s reductive isn’t it? It feels super reductive. Especially because notwithstanding my manipulative list above, the two are different in the ways that matter most: themes, tone and impact. I hope I got it out of my system above, US Route 160 deserves its stand-alone focus.
This is a very dark work. The mood is overwhelmingly oppressive and hopeless, even before the story starts unfolding. I am put in the mind of a writing exercise from decades ago, where the class was asked to convey someone’s mood only through scene description. 160 would have aced that assignment. Words are used like blunt weapons to convey the desperation of the protagonist. It is often effective but… ends up being a bit one-note. That note is really strong and crescendic (c’mon that’s totally a word, no need to look it up), but without variation around it, it starts losing its punch. It is not helped by some unfortunate grammar or spelling which breaks the spell. One that stood out was (paraphrase) “ultraviolence soothed her skin” Now I’m pretty sure from context, that was supposed to be Ultraviolet. If not it was jarring for different, word choice reasons. And yet elsewhere I was gifted with the phrase “corset of lies” which I unreservedly love in and out of context.
Besides the rhythm of the text itself, the main weapon in its mostly linear runtime is dramatic text pacing. 160 doubles down by using both interactivity and more traditional sentence/paragraph structure to regulate its cadence. Like the above, I think this is done so pervasively that the effect becomes muted by the end. It too would benefit from some variation in intensity and application.
The story being told is Tragic in the colloquial (not Greek Drama) sense. The protagonist’s life as told through flashback is heartbreaking. Their western journey is fraught with the rubble of those ancient battle scars. It is pleasantly surprising to me then, given the relative homogeneity of tone, that the three endings I found were so wildly different from each other and the rest of the piece. One managed to find a whole new level of tragic, one was melancholy and slightly …hopeful seems too strong but that’s all I’ve got, and one was delightfully ambiguous. But only one of them felt like a legitimate result of player choice, the others were kind of arbitrary given the choices that brought you there.
It feels …bad… to talk about “Sparks of Joy” for this piece, how about “Sparks of Appreciation?” When the tone worked it really worked, and there were some excellent turns of phrase. And that one ambiguous ending had me smiling in its audacity. But those were counterbalanced by the unremitting ambience, occasional format or word choice clunks, and some arbitrary-feeling endings.
So, to compare to Chase the Sun… godDAMNit brain!
Playtime: 40min, 3 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Intrusive (lack of variation)
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
We've all had those involuntary moments where maybe we misunderstood or misread a work, but it was powerful to us in some way. That happened here with R160. You open your eyes in the hospital and the text says SHE'S HERE. I thought it was the narrator's mother, one of two main antagonists. But it was actually the person you loved. It shook me. This was a high point for me in IFComp and R160 as well. It's deserved, even if R160 doesn't soar. It reminded me of old fears and how I'm at least glad some of them didn't come true. Some remain. They're nothing as harrowing as escaping from a preacher you don't love, whom you're engaged to. Not only that, but you don't like men, period, which is another strike against you.
So it's a cliche we're all running from something. And driving's a good way to do it. I remember driving around through some curves in college, curves a friend three years younger than me told me about. It felt like I was dekeing some problems or other, or I hoped I was. I soon realized I wasn't. My problems weren't as serious as the main character's. But we had similar abstract concepts we were running from. "Be grateful for what you have, you barely deserve it" guilt trips. It reminds me of my fears of marriage, too. There are all sorts of jokes about picking the wrong person, but I found it easy to picture that a spouse would either be not right for me, or for my family or, as a horrible compromise, nobody. Of course, along the way, I chose bad friends, not to be rebellious, but just, well, I was used to certain things, and there were certain faults I felt I should be able to forgive.
These days there are more late-night bike rides or walks or even visiting the athletic club, too, about this sort of thing, but they're not as intense, and often it's about getting ideas. But R160 brought back some of the thornier bits I'm able to deal with now.
These days the driving around curves is replaced with late night bike rides or walks where I can reflect on things that don't bother me any more and
problems worth bouncing in my head. There are always writing notes to type into my computer when I get back. But certainly the fears in R160 have loomed in different contexts.
The plot itself can be oversimplified into continuing your flight or returning home or stopping for a break. If put that plainly, there wouldn't be much there, but based on the scenery you choose to concentrate on, different memories pop up. And with them, we don't get much of a view of the groom, but what there is, it's hard to like. The main character is obviously escaping more than heteronormativity. That's a word I hate, and I wish there was something shorter, but maybe such a concept deserves to sound ugly. She realizes her fiancee sees her as an accessory, too, and not even one particularly to be proud of. Someone convenient, maybe even a trophy. Her mother does, too. The narrator's being pulled into a life of apparent relative ease, certainly better physically than she's told she deserves. Based on the brief character sketch, I imagined the fiance cheating on her and blaming her or, at the very least, lying to her in the name of the Lord. Whether or not he knew she was not attracted to men. It didn't matter. There's ambiguity why he chose her, which seems intentional. The possibilities are disturbing both ways. That's how it is, fearing someone with power.
I suppose I'm a sucker for lines like "He argues with you about your withdrawn silence. / It's ironic that he never lets you get a word in." because they describe so much more than romantic failures. The sort of thing it took me too long to realize, and once I did realize it, I wondered if I was being snarky or ungrateful or nitpicky. This was more effective to me than the poetry, where the author resorted to super-short sentences once too often, which broke up some good observations.
There are three endings without a whole lot of branching, and there's no appreciable puzzle-solving, but here, there probably shouldn't be. You're making impulsive choices, but they are based on the characters' neglected fears and desires. Not even the best ending is fully happy, but each in its way dealt with non-romantic fears I had and even have. Maybe I was ready to laugh at the own weirdness from my life--like how my parents loathed fundamentalists, but don't go listening to that heavy metal music just in case there were Satanic lyrics. (It was too loud, anyway.) Or how elder family members had reservations about the Wisconsin (or was it the Missouri) Lutheran Synod. Eventually, my parents divorced and remarried non-Lutherans. My sister's husband is Jewish. This wasn't truly funny until I heard Emo Phillips's canonical joke on religion. (It's best in his voice, but it's good on paper, even/especially if you see where it's going!)
It wasn't just about religion, either. I picked the wrong college sports team in my adolescence: Purdue, where we used to live) and not Northwestern, the smart kids' school. Not quite picking a life mate, but not something you should have to justify to anyone, and I did. Peers and teachers found it odd. Others at school were upset I quit an extracurricular activity because I felt I didn't belong. They played the "it's the best you can do, really" and "what are you looking for, anyway?" angle. I felt like a bottom feeder in them, then felt lost away from them. It definitely depicts a moralistic community without being moralistic, and that certainly gave me space to consider far less drastic things than a failed marriage, and I never felt the story saying "You think you were lost? Look at the protagonist!"
If you want a robust story, US ROUTE 180 might not be the work for you, and the poetry didn't work well, either, but the core but it was remarkably effective at reminding me of some horrors I escaped, and which frustrations mattered and which didn't, and other ways I even compromised saying, well, I've found enough of myself, and that's enough, right? Some might find US Route 180 a bit too overgeneral, and I can see that. But it hit a sweet spot for this never-married, never-engaged person.
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