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Memories built around an unexpected nuisance, January 24, 2022
Sting, which I beta-tested, is a slice-of-life game that never really intrudes on you or forces you to empathize. It never portrays the autobiopgraphical character as too outgoing or too deserving of your sympathy in a harsh society, or too woe-is-me-I-was-dumb-when-younger, or whatever. The main character's sister is clearly more outgoing and than the main character. But they have a sort of bond through Sting, which explores that and how they see less of each other over time and develop their own lives, but there's still an odd fulcrum.
Perhaps what I liked most about Sting was that it had the right distance. It didn't lean in on you with a Big Message or a Story You Had to Like, but it also didn't go into trivia you felt bad not caring about. It invited me to find my own memories and not worry if they were more or less profound than the author's. This isn't always the case with autobiographical works. They can either be too flippant, or too "you need to listen up for the good of society." These still work in their own way, but with Sting, I felt encouraged to imitate it badly if need be. It took a while after testing it and writing a review in the authors' forum.
That's a general assessment, but I also don't want to spoil too much. Part of the enjoyment is the discovery of something else as you guess how the scene is going to end. The boat race is funny and navigates the terminology well (I enjoyed both finishing last and second.) It has a nice balance of giving you an idea of what's going on and not forcing you to understand the terminology. Getting a player to feel lost is a tricky business, because too much, and they hit alt-F4. I definitely didn't. There's the feel that the people you're racing with aren't going to rub it in, and you've been there before, and you'd really like to do the best you can, but you just don't have the skill, yet. Maybe one day. (There is a way to win. It requires foreknowledge of what goes on. I think I'm close to figuring it out.) It was the most interesting and involving part of Sting to me, because backing up and putting on my game designer hat, I can picture what a hash I'd make of trying to show a player-character in a chess game against someone two or three hundred points higher rated than them. The terminology would be pretty horrible. Which is a bit confusing in the boat race, but not too confusing. Your sister yells at you what to do if you mess up.
The other bits are tougher to describe without spoiling, but the first scene, where you are very young, is well done. An object disappears if you try to examine it, but it's not surreal or crazy or anything. It reminded me of a bee sting I had when very young, and how I avenged myself killing a few bees after that. Yes, it wasn't their fault. Yes, mosquitos still got to me anyway. Yes, I grew out of it.
My later memories of bees are a bit more pedestrian, too: urban legends (?) of the bee in a beer can that stung someone's throat (one more reason not to drink beer, kids!) or bees at cookouts, or even at college football tailgates, especially when my family found lots of cans to recycle at the local Alcoa plant, and then how there weren't any when we moved to Evanston, because crowds were smaller and Northwestern was stricter about litter. I even had a beehive stuck in a dryer exhaust vent outside my condo. They liked the warmth, I guess. The reader may have stories and memories, too, as bees aren't a huge nuisance, but they're there, but not enough to become pedestrian. And certainly when I see kids get upset about bees nearby, that brings back memories. Learning to deal with them took some excitement from life.
The main events work for me because a bee sting isn't quite getting insulted or breaking a bone. It's embarrassing and painful and briefly debilitating, yet not fully embarrassing or painful or inconvenient long-term. And certainly every time I get a rash, even, I think back to the only bee sting I had, as well as the near misses, and the memory of adults taking out a hornet's nest down a gravel road to a pool I loved to visit as a kid, as well as learning the difference of bees vs. hornets and being very very scared of hornets for a while!
But back to the story: you have other small motivators to push the story forward later, too, like groceries getting warm (I almost missed this! Taking the bus to my favorite discount grocer, with good sales on refrigerated/fresh goods, got a lot riskier during COVID,) and the shift from the second-last to final scene made a lot of sense when I slowed down to stop plowing through the testing.
We all have a story like this. It's one we suspect everyone has, until we talk with people and realize it's sort of unique to us. Maybe it's parades or tricycles or poison ivy or even loose nails that tear up shoes or clothes. I'm left slightly jealous that someone could have these memories organized so well, because I don't with regard to a sibling, but Sting left me to sit down and piece through how I'd make a story of my own, of things I remembered from much younger that popped up again and again. They're that profound, but they were mine. For instance, every few years I kick an exercise weight buried under a pile of clothes. Or perhaps I remember the short walk and bus trip to the vet, where I got to show off a cat or two, and that time during COVID when my bus pass expired and I had to run to the vet. And perhaps a lesser work than Sting would have gotten me close to this or made me say "I bet I have that too," but Sting made it a lot more likely. I think and hope there will be such works in IFComp in the future that won't have to compare themselves to Sting, and they won't need you to be blown away by them, but they will be very worth telling, and they'll bring back memories for me and others.
NOTE: A couple days before I revised and posted this review to IFDB, I realized there was a thread I'd seen in chess games. It's sort of my own story, but I want to tell it here, because without Sting, I might not have made the links. I'll spoiler it, for those indifferent to chess or who just want me to stick to the game. Maybe Sting will do the same for you, or your own hobbies or phobias or bugaboos.
(Spoiler - click to show)When I was looking to get my rating up to 2000, someone showed me a weapon against the Sicilian Defense. One line went (sorry, notation is unavoidable!) 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. c3 Nf6 4. Be2 and if ...Nxe4?? 5. Qa4+! picking off the knight. I'll spare you the opening theory, but the point is, you set a few traps, and if your opponent knows them, you still don't have to face the sort of openings they can really prepare. Grandmasters wouldn't play or fear this, but then, I don't play many grandmasters.
A year later I played Ron, a chess hustler who went to my high school 20+ years before me (later Harvard--I didn't go there,) and he fell into the trap. But he started laughing and joking around and pointing out how he might be coming back and things I should watch out for. His extra pawn controlled the center! My extra piece maybe wasn't doing much! And so forth. I wondered if he was making fun of me, but we got to be friends, and he encouraged me and showed me other things.
But I gave up on chess for a long time and didn't see Ron my one college summer. In 2012 I read he'd drowned in an undertow, just offshore from his friends playing chess. And I never got to ask him if he fell into that trap on purpose. There were still a lot of lessons, from that and others, so it didn't matter, and it was fun to imagine either way. When I got back into online chess in mid-2021, I didn't want to face preparation, so I went for the system above. I guess I did the stinging--sort of. Sometimes I'd be shocked someone rated 2000 would fall into a trap and wondering if I didn't really deserve the win. Sometimes they'd bounce back, and sometimes they wouldn't. Black's center pawn mass made for an attack or tricky endgames. I even had some slip-ups where I blundered back against people rated 300 points lower. One pretty strong opponent fell into the trap twice--oops! (I've done that, too.) But no matter what happened, I saw the possibilities in the game, and I welcomed the fight, not worrying if I should be winning quickly or I deserved to cash in on the trap. It just encouraged me to take my chances better the next time I lost material early with a silly blunder, too. Or, for that matter, to bounce back better if I flaked in real life. I didn't feel too dumb or clever after the computer dissected the possibilities I missed, for better or worse. So there were a lot of wrinkles.
Ron wasn't related to me by blood. He probably did this for other people, too. But Sting helped remind me of him and that silly opening trap and pull my experiences apart to realize a few things, and it provided some closure.