A Rope of Chalk

by Ryan Veeder profile

2020

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Number of Reviews: 5
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nostalgic or anti-nostalgic?, December 11, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

I think I mentioned somewhere in the interminable chain of my previous Comp reviews that my knowledge of recent IF is rather patchy: I got into it in the early aughts, playing through all the Comp games from like í02 through í06 and catching up on most of the classics of the scene (I mean except Curses since itís hard), but then got less obsessive about it over the next few years and only dipped in intermittently through the teens, before the bug came roaring back last year. All of which is to say Iíve managed to pretty much entirely miss the era of Ryan Veeder Ė I think Taco Fiction was in the last Comp I took a half-serious run at before 2019ís, and dimly remember that it was fun and funny but not much else. As Iíve been getting back into things, I have checked out a few of his other games Ė Captain Verdeterreís Plunder and Ascent of the Gothic Tower Ė but Iím still aware that ďRyan Veeder gamesĒ are a well-defined thing these days, though one that's a bit of a mystery to me.

All of which is by way of saying that Iím not going to be able to situate A Rope of Chalk in the authorís oeuvre and am not completely sure what to make of the metafictional post-script Ė but nevertheless, I still dug the hell out of this game. ARoC situates itself as an attempt to document a college art contest from a decade in the past, while acknowledging in an introductory note that memory and the limitations of perspective being what they are, weíre in for a Rashomon-style confusion of narratives. Youíre given the choice to opt in or out of the story given these caveats, and if you say ďnoĒ the game quits, so fair warning that subjectivity is the order of the day. The game lives up to this premise by rotating you among four or five different protagonists (depending on how you count), and while thereís not much divergence in the actual sequence of events, each has a distinct narrative voice, with modifications not just to descriptions and action responses, but also most parser responses to account for who the protagonist is in each sequence. Thereís even different punctuation around dialogue options depending on who the main character is!

I started that paragraph out talking about the premise but quickly fell into the implementation, and thatís accurate to my experience of the game. The plot and characters are fun and everythingís well-written, but when Iím thinking back on what it was like to play ARoC, itís really the attention to detail and depth of implementation that stand out Ė like, thatís a thing that reviewers, including me, say about many games, but here itís almost spooky how the author sometimes seemed to be reading my mind. Like, thereís a point where your characterís perceptions get shifted (Spoiler - click to show)(I realize this applies to several bits, but Iím thinking of the beginning of the Nathalie sequence), and all sorts of verbs are rewritten to respond to the situation, including some that arenít ever useful to the story like JUMP and LAUGH. I donít want to spoil too many more, but there were a bunch of times when I typed something into the parser just to be cute, and was amazed to find that the author had gotten there first. There are niggles, of course Ė I hit on the idea of (Spoiler - click to show)using water to erase chalk art I didnít like while in the first sequence, playing as Lane, but instead of being told that wasnít something she would consider, there was a bunch of unpromising parser wrestling, so it was a bit surprising when that very thing wound up being suggested right out the gate in the second sequence. But many of these niggles are I think due to my own expectations, which had been inflated excessively high by the overall extreme level of responsiveness.

Plot-wise, ARoC is all about building up to one big event Ė youíre primed to know that something will go disastrously pear-shaped by the blurb and intro, and the opening sections have quite a lot to do and explore so it doesnít feel like busywork even though from a certain point of view, youíre just marking time until things really kick off. There are a bunch of characters to engage with, and while they all present as stereotypes at first blush, thereís enough substance beneath the surface to have made me wish there were more than the 4 or 5 dialogue options on offer for each conversation (even though I donít think the game would work as well if I got my wish Ė this is me noting smart design, not indicating an oversight). And since this is a sidewalk-chalk tournament, thereís a lot of fun, well-described art to look at, with each piece casting some light on the artist who made it (I was expecting Rachelís to be bad from the lead up, but I had no idea how awful it would actually turn out to be).

Once the key event kicks in, the game gets a little more focused and thereís even what you might be able to call a puzzle if you squint at it. But even as thereís some additional urgency, and a few real obstacles (Spoiler - click to show)(well, they might not be real but close enough), youíre always rewarded for lingering and straying off the beaten path Ė and the steps you need to take to progress are always quite clear, keeping the momentum and the enjoyment up.

I have a couple of more spoiler-y thoughts on the ending, so Iíll wrap up with those, after repeating again that this is an excellent, funny game (Iíve barely talked about the jokes, I realize). Anyway: (Spoiler - click to show)thereís a moment or two of catharsis at the end of the story, then an optional sequence where you can wander around whatís presented as the authorís office, finding various bits of correspondence and photos that purport to indicate the research thatís been done into the tournament, as well as providing some glimpses of what happened to these kids ten years out from college. I found this a bit enigmatic, since the ending didnít really leave me with a strong takeaway that was then recast by the afterward Ė it all worked well enough on its own, but I think I was waiting for some kind of twist or emotional punch that never fully landed. But in the end I think this might be the point: there are big things that happen in our lives sometimes and loom large in our memories, but when you try to pin down exactly what happened, or what simple cause-and-effect impact it had, it all slips away because people donít really work like that. I oscillate between thinking A Rope of Chalk is nostalgic and thinking itís anti-nostalgic, because it makes the past loom so large and presents a memory with such immediacy and impact, but also refuses to tie a bow around it and spell out what it all means.