You Couldn't Have Done That

by Ann Hugo profile

Slice of life
2020

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Number of Reviews: 9
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A focused look at a traumatic experience, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

There are a fair few pieces of IF that explore feelings of constraint or paralysis by seeming to offer choices but then negating the player’s attempts at agency – Rameses, most famously, or I was partial to Constraints from a couple years after. There’s also lots of IF involving neuroatypical protagonists, from your garden-variety aliens or disembodied consciousnesses to, as here, more grounded examples like autistic folks. I don’t recall seeing the two of these elements combined in the way YCHDT does, which makes for a marriage of theme and form that elevates this short story about a traumatic event.

We know going in that the player character is autistic, and the opening does a good job of laying out what that means for the protagonist: challenges with eye contact, comfort in repetitive activities, difficulty speaking when triggered. There are small, well-drawn incidents or choices that establish each of these pieces before the main story kicks off, which helped me better orient towards how to portray the character. Indeed, they did such a good job that I don’t think I realized how the choices work until I did a replay: while you do occasionally get choices that would push against Theo’s boundaries, when you try to select these you get told You Couldn’t Have Done that and sent back down the other path. While this means I missed out on some of how YCHDT works on my initial foray, I don’t think that undermines the intended experience since I’d basically internalized the constraints.

The story is really about setting up, then relating, a single traumatic encounter, so it’s very focused throughout its short length. This does mean that there are some elements in the first half or so of the game that seem odd, as there are specific details and characters’ actions that seem to get disproportionate attention. The actions of the antagonistic character slowly escalate over time, and grow increasingly pushy and bizarre. Again, there’s a good synthesis of tone and theme here, since this gives an off-kilter, horror-movie vibe to proceedings.

When the traumatic event comes, it similarly has a lot of terrible immediacy, and again a few strange, specific details keep the engagement high (I think I saw another review mention that this is based on an actual experience of the author, which is awful). YCHDT doesn’t wallow in awfulness, though, and after this crisis the main character does get some support, which I was glad of as otherwise I was worried the game might feel pretty bleak. I will say I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more of the aftermath portrayed, though – I wanted to know a bit more about how Theo wound up processing the event, and how, if at all, it impacted her moving forward. But I think the game is quite effective as it stands, and was stable and almost entirely typo-free – I feel a bit dumb because I often say “this game does exactly what it’s trying to do”, but since there are so many different ways of writing good IF it’s worth acknowledging when one, like YCHDT, is exemplary for its type.